Last updated: 04:00 PM ET, Wed November 18 2015

China’s Secondary Cities Try to Enter the Spotlight

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | November 18, 2015

China’s Secondary Cities Try to Enter the Spotlight

PHOTO: Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian. (photo by Janeen Christoff)

China has more than a billion people. It has some truly massive cities. Two of its largest metros, Shanghai (population 22 million) and Beijing (19 million), occupy the spotlight as far as tourism and travel is concerned. They enjoy the same kind of name recognition amongst international travelers as Tokyo, London and New York. 

China’s other cities do not have the same kind of household name status, at least not in the West. Tourists and business travelers who have spent time in the Asia-Pacific region are probably familiar with some of these other places, but most folks have merely heard the names (Guangzhou, Chongqing, Dalian, Xian) on the news and have a vague notion that these cities are “somewhere in China.” 

Lots of tourism potential, lots of competition 

If these metropolises were in any other country, they would be headlining urban destinations because of their number of attractions and sheer size. Now, some travelers have started to discover China’s secondary cities, and many of these places have started to promote themselves to overseas tourists, investors and potential expats. 

There is stiff competition for tourist dollars. China has more than 150 cities with populations over one million. Projections suggest that, in 10 years time, the country will have 225 million-person-plus cities. To realize how big that number is, you can contrast it with Europe, where the entire continent currently has 35 cities with more than a million residents.   

Economic-minded travelers already know these places

Yes, this means stiff competition for any Chinese metropolis that wants to get itself on the tourist radar. At the same time, it means a lack of competition for foreign investors and job-seeking expats. In fact, many overseas firms have adopted the strategy of starting their development in China’s second cities, where they can be a “big fish in a smaller pond.” The same goes for expats, from English teachers to computer experts. They can often roll into town and find a job right away because of their experience (or sometimes simply their nationality). 

Some cities have begun to offer transit visas that can give tourists and economically-minded travelers a chance to stop in some of the secondary cities. In addition to Beijing and Shanghai, tourists can get 72-hour visas for places like Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Harbin, Shenyang, Dalian, Xian, Guilin, Kunming, Wuhan, Xiamen, Tianjin, Qingdao and Hangzhou. 

Some cities rely on a specific trait to market themselves to tourists (and companies that offer package tours). For example, Xian has a massive city wall and the ancient terra-cotta warriors. Shenzhen and Zhuhai are easily reached from Hong Kong and Macau, Hangzhou and Suzhou have classical landscape gardens and historic buildings. 

Seeking outbound travelers from secondary cities

Australia was one of the first countries that realized that China’s secondary cities had a wealth of outbound travelers as well. Instead of promoting itself to people in the Big Two, the country has been focusing on reaching potential travelers in the other large cities that have growing pools of upper and middle class citizens. 

As its economic profile continues to rise, more and more international tourists will follow the lead of business travelers and start to discover China’s other cities. One could literally spend a lifetime traveling through the country and still not visit every large city.

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