Analysis: why Chinese influencers are flocking to Costco in Shanghai (and no, it’s not because of the discounts)

These photosTrending Chinese social media all have one thing in common: a large “Costco wholesale” logo prominently displayed in the background, often against a deep blue sky.

For nearly two years, most people in China have been unable to travel abroad due to strict and relentless Covid-19 border restrictions: outbound flights are limited, the quarantine upon re-entry is harsh and lengthy, and the authorities Chinese have stopped issuing or renewing passports for all but essential travel.

However, some Chinese influencers have come up with creative ways to bring seemingly exotic scenes to their social media feeds, taking pictures in places like the Costco Shanghai store.

On Xiaohongshu, a fashion and lifestyle app often referred to as China’s Instagram, users share tips on how to pose for photos in front of the department store to make it look like they’re in Los Angeles.

Tips include wearing bright, casual clothing, bringing pizza and colas as accessories if you’re not a Costco member, and taking photos in the late afternoon, when the colors seem warmer and more saturated.

Most users are frank about the fact that they are not actually in Los Angeles and are simply posing for fun, with phrases like “Pretending to be in Los Angeles” frequently quoted in the captions.

Other popular pandemic-era hashtags include “Pretend to be in Paris” and “Pretend to be in Tokyo,” with users posing in foreign-style shopping streets, cafes, or tea gardens.

For many influencers, this is just another fun way to spice up their feeds. But the posts are also a painful and vivid reminder of how long China has been isolated from the world.

Before the pandemic, foreign travel had become a common part of life for China’s growing middle class.

In 2019, tourists from mainland China made 155 million tripsWith Macao, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Myanmar and the United States being the main destinations.
China was also the country that spends the most on outbound tourism in the world. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, Chinese tourists spent more than $ 254 billion abroad in 2019: almost a fifth of global tourism spending.

At the height of the pandemic, world travel came to a halt and nations rushed to close borders and cancel international flights.

Now, a growing number of countries are opening up and learning to live with the virus after implementing mass vaccines. But China continues to keep its borders tightly closed and redoubling its zero Covid policy, with the aim of completely eradicating the virus from the interior of the country.

New closures in China as local Covid-19 infections spread to 11 provinces

Since travel abroad is no longer viable, the Chinese authorities have promoted domestic tourism as an alternative. China’s vast size and rich diversity have worked in its favor, but it remains to be seen how much longer Chinese citizens will be content to be isolated from the real Angels, Paris or Tokyo.

And with the highly infectious Delta variant, even domestic travel can be risky.

China’s latest outbreak, which has infected more than 300 people in 12 provinces, is linked to a dozen tourist groups, according to health authorities. Travel agencies have also been banned from organizing trips between provinces in regions with a high number of cases.

In the northwest of the country, hundreds of domestic tourists were trapped in Inner Mongolia and Gansu for days when authorities imposed strict closures to slow the spread of the virus.

In Ejin Banner, a region of Inner Mongolia, the local tourism board apologized by offering trapped tourists free entry to three popular attractions, redeemable within three years. But whether they will be willing to return is another story.

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