From TikTok fame to most searched spot in China, how a small East China city made it?

The topic “Zibo barbecue” on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, was played 4.96 billion times by Monday since the city of Zibo in east China stormed the Internet for over a month.

In March, the small city with a population of 4.7 million saw 4.8 million tourists flown in. The hype continued, Zibo topped the train ticket search chart on the 14 and 15 this month, Meituan data showed, with Beijing to Zibo train tickets for May 1, the first day of the five-day Labor Day holiday, sold out in a minute.

Zibo is certainly not the only city in China that offers barbecue, or even the most famous one, but its seemingly sudden fame was steps in the making.

Zhou Maosong, president of the Zibo Tourism Promotion Association, tracked the timeline of this round of the city’s barbecue popularity.

Diners post for a group photo at a restaurant in Zibo, east China’s Shandong Province, March 31, 2023.

Zhou said that it originated from the crowd-gathering effect of cultural and tourism activities including a music festival, then celebrities tasted the barbecue and put their experiences online attracting young people and eventually leading to a wave of students from surrounding cities visiting Zibo.

On top of the star effect, Zibo plays to its advantage of low living costs. What better way to lure adventurous, hungry and poor college students other than “tasty barbecue that makes you full within 50 yuan!”

The city government swiftly smelled the business opportunity and introduced a host of measures in supporting the barbecue sector, Zhou added.

It distributed 250,000 yuan in barbecue coupons and designed barbecue-themed one-day and two-day tour routes for tourists. Free barbecue maps and 21 shuttle buses are also being offered, moreover, a barbecue festival was scheduled during the Labor Day holiday.

A volunteer holds up a welcoming sign beside a shuttle bus near the Zibo Railway Station, April 14, 2023.

Live up to the fame

Zibo did not fall into the trap of easy fame that dies fast where merchants cheat customers on price and quality for a maximum profit in the shortest time.

A blogger with close to 18 million fans on Douyin took an electronic scale to 10 barbecue stalls in Zibo to test if he will be offered less than labelled. To his surprise, not a single one was caught short of weight and some stall owners even offered him specialities free of charge. Local people’s sincerity and hospitality touched even more people online and again lifted the city’s popularity.

Apart from going for the gourmet, tourists also went to scenic spots and historical sites in the city during their stay, Meituan data showed.

Zibo’s Zhong Shu Ge in Haidai Tower attracts many visitors on April 15, 2023.

The arrival of tourists has boosted Zibo’s economy and created more employment opportunities. According to the Tianyancha, a business data provider, there are over 3,000 barbecue-related companies in Zibo, and more than 170 new companies were launched this month by the 16th on top of 197 new ones in March.

The employment demand for the barbecue sector raises and the city’s employment office has arranged recruitment activities to help fill in the vacancies.

China has set the GDP growth target at around 5 per cent for this year. Authorities around the country are finding ways to boost growth. Zibo has offered a success story of a collective effort from merchants and the government in boosting consumption. Governments in other parts of the country are watching and optimizing their ways of supporting local businesses.

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