Chinese tourist sites attract virtual crowds and real money

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On March 1, the Potala Palace in Lhasa welcomed more than a million tourists, a record. But all these “visitors” to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tibet arrived via their smartphones.

“Hi everyone! Welcome to our online tour,” the tour guide said, waving to his live audience behind a face mask. He then walked through the centuries-old fortress, giving his virtual visitors a tour of the palace’s artifacts, including traditional Buddhist sculptures and paintings.

Virtual tours, although not an original concept, have gained a foothold in China’s domestic tourism industry as millions of people have postponed their travel plans due to the coronavirus epidemic. COVID-19. Authorities have also closed tourist sites across the country – including major sites like the Palace Museum in Beijing and sections of the Great Wall – to avoid large crowds and prevent the spread of the contagious virus. Instead, they encouraged museums to use “digital resources.”

Just like many other businesses – including beauty salons, nightclubs and reality TV shows – the country’s tourism sector has also moved online, adapting to a time when social distancing is the new normal. To help tourism-focused businesses stay afloat, major e-commerce platforms like Alibaba, which has added an “online excursion” feature to its live-streaming business platform, Taobao Live, which allows museums, zoos and aquariums to attract virtual crowds.

Alibaba Live currently features famous tourist attractions such as the Potala Palace, Mogao Grottoes in northwest Gansu Province, and Chengdu Panda Base in southwest Sichuan Province. Although live tours are free, tourist sites can make money by selling souvenirs to viewers.

GIF of pandas playing in a zoo enclosure. By @万能的淘宝 on Weibo

The museum in Suzhou, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, just over an hour’s drive from Shanghai, can also be “visited” on Alibaba Live. Jiang Han, deputy director of the museum’s cultural and creative department, told Sixth Tone that the feature film became a hit. She said some 5.8 million people joined the museum’s first two live tours, roughly equal to the number of in-person visitors they admit in three months.

“Our museum has plum blossoms at the entrance, so while I was welcoming, I said it was such a shame that no one could appreciate the blossoms because of the epidemic,” said Jiang, who is herself a facilitator. “Then I saw a comment saying, ‘No worries, millions of us just saw it! I was touched.”

Jiang said the digital tours not only helped attract more virtual tourists, but also boosted souvenir sales. The museum’s livestream page links to its official store on Taobao, Alibaba’s online marketplace, where visitors can purchase themed and commemorative products.

“Souvenir sales that day were four times higher than usual,” Jiang said, adding that after showing a 1,000-year-old bowl during a live broadcast, many viewers bought cookies marked with the ancient artifact in the museum’s online store.

Screenshots of live tours of Suzhou Museum in Jiangsu Province and Sanxingdui Museum in southwestern Sichuan Province.  By @万能的淘宝 on Weibo

Screenshots of live tours of Suzhou Museum in Jiangsu Province and Sanxingdui Museum in southwestern Sichuan Province. By @万能的淘宝 on Weibo

Taobao Live told Sixth Tone that more than 20 museums in China have online shops on the platform, and the live broadcast has created a new niche for museums to enjoy souvenirs.

In fact, people buying souvenirs for places they haven’t visited were already a trend in China. Taobao stores in museums received about 1.6 billion page visits in 2019, according to a study by Tsinghua University in Beijing.

The ultimate goal of museums is to help people appreciate the exhibits. Digitization is only one alternative.

However, art connoisseurs like Jiang view the trend as overrated, saying it does not replace the experience of visiting museums and galleries in person.

“The ultimate goal of museums is to help people appreciate the pieces in an exhibit,” she said. “Digitization is only an alternative. We hope our live stream will inspire viewers to visit our museum in person, experience and feel a connection with the pieces.

Zheng Shiyin, the founder of art education association ARTspeaks, said visiting museums and galleries is a “middle-class experience” that requires both free time and disposable income. And even if such experiences are widely shared online, she wonders if the working population will listen.

“Many people have welcomed the digitization of museums, as information has become more accessible and more personalized,” Zheng told Sixth Tone. “However, the class divide still exists.”

Publisher: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: A guide leads a live tour of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, March 1, 2020. CNS)

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