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China’s Tourist Sites Draw Virtual Crowds, Real Cash

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

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

The virtual tours, though not an original concept, have gained a new foothold in China’s domestic tourism industry as millions of people have postponed their travel plans due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Authorities have also closed tourist sites nationwide — including major landmarks like the Palace Museum in Beijing and sections of the Great Wall — to avoid large crowds and stop the contagious virus from spreading. Instead, they’ve encouraged museums to make use of “digital resources.”

Just like many other businesses — including beauty shops, 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. Helping tourism-focused businesses stay afloat are large e-commerce platforms like Alibaba, which added an “online field trip” feature to its commercial livestreaming platform, Taobao Live, that allows museums, zoos, and aquariums to attract virtual crowds.

Alibaba Live currently features famous tourist attractions such as the Potala Palace, the Mogao Grottoes in the northwestern Gansu province, and the Chengdu Panda Base in the southwestern Sichuan province. Though the livestreamed tours are free, the tourist sites can make money by selling souvenirs to viewers.