SEOUL — Zuo Weiwei has been stuck since February in her hometown Wuhan — yes, that Wuhan — and the problem now is that the city is overflowing with tourists.

“The Yellow Crane Tower is exploding with people,” said Zuo, 32. “You can’t squeeze in. You can maybe take a photo outside, then leave.”

Wuhan’s government, like many across China, has been offering free tickets to tourist attractions to try to salvage economic growth. For better or worse, it appears to be working, as China approaches its first major holiday season since tamping down the coronavirus.

The “Golden Week” holiday is one of the largest annual human migrations, with upward of 700 million people on the move. This year, it will be a crucial test of China’s efforts to regain normalcy and prevent new coronavirus waves.

The holiday season begins with China’s National Day on Oct. 1, marking 71 years of Communist Party rule. The period also coincides with this year’s mid-autumn festival, a one-day holiday that falls on the night of the fullest autumn moon.  

In China, coronavirus sparks a rethink on chopsticks

With borders closed around the world, those in China itching to travel have had to look closer to home. Around 408 million highway trips are expected to be made this Golden Week, slightly up from last year, China’s Ministry of Transport said on Thursday. Domestic flight bookings are up 10 percent from last year, according to ticket platform Qunar.

Local officials have trumpeted deep discounts for their tourist attractions, hoping that out-of-town visitors will help fill empty coffers. But the flood of travelers will make social distancing difficult and brings the risk of new virus outbreaks that could spread rapidly across the country.

There are signs of apprehension. Some Chinese universities have shortened their Golden Week break to only a few days to discourage students from leaving campus, saying they will extend the winter holiday to compensate.

China’s Culture and Tourism Ministry last week ordered tourist sites to limit capacity over Golden Week to 75 percent, while maintaining temperature checks and frequent disinfection routines. Visitors must book in advance with their real names to facilitate contact-tracing.

This week, China detected its first local asymptomatic coronavirus infections in more than a month, with two port workers testing positive in Qingdao, in the country’s east.

As coronavirus keeps Chinese tourists at home, a world feels their absence

Early this year, Zuo returned from Thailand — her adoptive home for the past five years — to visit family in Wuhan. Hours after she arrived, the city locked down because of the coronavirus. She’s been there since.

In Thailand, Zuo had felt at home with the other transgender women living and working there as performers. But the coronavirus has crippled Bangkok’s entertainment industry, like so many others.

As Golden Week approached, Zuo had booked a vacation to the humid subtropics of China’s Yunnan province — the closest thing, she thought, to Thailand.

Then last week, coronavirus cases emerged at Yunnan’s border with Myanmar. Chinese authorities in the area blamed illegal immigrants and declared a return to “wartime status” to fight the virus.

Forced to cancel her trip, Zuo, who runs a video streaming channel, now plans to spend next week hunkered down in her Wuhan apartment. With the impending wave of inbound tourists, she doesn’t want to spend too much time out of doors.

“I live by myself, but I have a lot of family and friends nearby,” she said. “I won’t be lonely.”

In Wuhan, crowds return as coronavirus fears fade

Since returning to Wuhan, Zuo has been showing her online fans the local eats: heaping bowls of crayfish, spiced duck necks, meats braised in soy sauce to a mahogany sheen.

“On this trip home, the crayfish were divine,” she wrote last month on her Weibo social media account.

Wuhan’s Yellow Crane Tower topped the list for popular attractions for next week, followed by Shanghai Disneyland and Xian’s terra-cotta warriors, according to a report from Chinese ticket-booking platform Ctrip,

It’s hard to imagine Wuhan making it to No. 1 in a typical year. But patriotism and rubbernecking are powerful forces. And Wuhan was the epicenter of a devastating pandemic.

Zuo said life has largely returned to normal in the city, though most people still wear masks and some residential compounds still check temperatures at the gate. She said she’s a little nervous about the flood of tourists on the way.

“It’s still a bit risky,” she said. “I don’t feel I need to go out to have fun on this specific week.”

As infections ebb, Japan hopes it has cracked the covid code on coexisting with the virus

As coronavirus travel restrictions keep Chinese tourists at home, a world that has grown dependent on them feels their absence

In China, coronavirus sparks a chopsticks rethink

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