Chinese people are breaking with tradition as celebrations get under way this Lunar New Year. Family reunions are increasingly being replaced by outings and trips to scenic spots, or places of interest in neighbouring provinces.
Xie Zhiwei, 44, a middle manager at a state-owned home builder in Shanghai, said deciding to take his family to Taiwan during the Lunar New Year holiday, which starts on Thursday, was “a big leap of faith”.
“In my dictionary, outings during the Spring Festival are something akin to a taboo,” he said. “During the most important festival in China, all we need to do is stay with the parents and relatives at home, to enjoy a family reunion. We are not supposed to do anything else.”
Xie is among 6.5 million mainland Chinese tourists who will travel abroad in the week-long holiday that runs through February 20.
According to a report published jointly by Ctrip, the mainland’s largest online travel agency, and China Tourism Academy, a research institution under the China National Tourism Administration, the number of outbound tourists during the Lunar New Year holiday is expected to rise by 5.7 per cent from 2017 to hit an all-time high of 6.5 million this year.
Just a decade ago, Lunar New Year – a festival steeped in tradition – represented high season for businesses such as restaurants, shops, garment makers and food processors.
“Those days are now history,” said Xie. “Economic growth and rising incomes have played a vital role in reshaping the festival.”
In the 1980s, the Lunar New Year was synonymous with good food and fireworks for people such as Xie.
“Great meals were rarely available to people in those days,” he said. “Dinners prepared for family gatherings during the festival were no less than a feast, and children like me could get a taste of delicacies such as roast duck.”
The tourism industry has emerged as the top beneficiary of the “Golden Week”, the seven-day public holiday during Lunar New Year, over the past decade. According to the joint report, 344 million mainland Chinese travelled domestically during the Lunar New Year holiday last year, with per capita spending hitting 3,500 yuan (US$560).
“The Spring Festival used to be low season for travel agencies, but business started booming three years ago, prompting us to design more products to cater to customers,” said Annie Ren, a manager with Shanghai Jinjiang International Travel, one of the largest tourist companies operating in the city. “Short trips to tourist destinations in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces are well received by people.”
Last year, revenue generated by the tourism sector during Lunar New Year topped 423 billion yuan nationwide, according to the China National Tourism Administration.
The change in how Chinese people celebrate festivals, particularly those in urban areas, not only underscores a profound shift in traditional Chinese events such as Lunar New Year, but also depicts a new picture of business in the world’s second-biggest economy.
China’s service sector accounted for 51.6 per cent of its gross domestic product in 2017, up from about 30 per cent in the early 1980s.
In Shanghai, the mainland’s most developed metropolis, the service sector represented about 70 per cent of the city’s GDP last year.
Millions of mainland Chinese are now also embracing new technology as they distribute digital red packets, or lai see, to friends, relatives and employees during Lunar New Year.
Last year, 46 billion digital red packets were distributed through Tencent Holdings’ messaging service WeChat between Lunar New Year eve and the fifth day of the holiday, a 43.3 per cent jump over the previous year.
“I began to realise that traditions can evolve into new forms of celebration,” Xie said. “Taking the whole family with me on the Taiwan trip is more than a family gathering. It is also a chance to make my parents, wife and kid happy.”