In recent years, the concept of Spec Ops Tourism (特种兵旅游) has captured the imagination of many adventure-seeking individuals in China. This trend sees participants engaging in military-style training and adventure activities, reminiscent of the rigorous training undertaken by special forces operatives. The trend is riding the waves of a booming domestic tourism industry, which saw an impressive 8.26 billion trips made during the National Day Golden Week of 2023, marking a 71.3% increase compared to the previous period, and generating a revenue of 753.43 billion yuan​1​. With an adrenaline rush on offer, this form of tourism has carved out its own niche amidst a growing appetite for diverse travel experiences.

What is Spec Ops Tourism?

Definition and Origin

Spec Ops Tourism, or “特种兵旅游” in Chinese, emerged as a buzzword in China in 2023. This term metaphorically relates to the rigorous training that special forces (spec ops) go through, symbolizing an intense and thrilling form of tourism. The essence of Spec Ops Tourism lies in visiting as many attractions as possible within a very limited time frame, often over weekends or short holidays, embodying a mentality of maximizing the holiday experience even at the expense of personal comfort​2​​3​​4​.

Core Concept

This form of travel resonates with the phrase “Ning Ke Wei Qu Zi Ji, Ye Bu Neng Wei Qu Jia Qi” (宁可委屈自己,也不能委屈假期), which translates to “I’d rather inconvenience myself than waste my holidays.” The underlying idea is to cram as many experiences as possible into the limited vacation time, thereby intensifying the travel experience. This trend is characterized by tight schedules, multiple destinations, and a quest for the extreme, almost akin to the challenging training of special ops soldiers.

Origin Story: A Student’s Five Peaks in Five Days Journey

The origin of Spec Ops Tourism can be traced back to an adventurous endeavor by a university student who managed to climb five famous mountains in China within just five days during the May Day holiday. This student planned meticulously to conquer Tai Mountain, Hua Mountain, Heng Mountain in Hunan, Heng Mountain in Hebei, and Song Mountain, demonstrating an exemplary instance of Spec Ops Tourism. The combined altitude of these five peaks is 9510.61 meters, not to mention the average distance between each peak is 500 kilometers. His journey began in Beijing from where he traveled to different provinces to climb these mountains, making the most out of his short holiday while also gaining widespread social media attention​5​​6​​7​​8​.

This daredevil adventure was not just a personal challenge but sparked a trend among young people, especially university students, who were captivated by the idea of maximizing their holiday experiences. The term Spec Ops Tourism rapidly gained traction and became synonymous with this high-intensity, multi-destination travel phenomenon.

Why is “Spec Ops Tourism” popular in China now?

Economic Resurgence: A Slow Pace

The rise of Spec Ops Tourism (特种兵旅游) in China during 2023 can be seen against the backdrop of a slow economic resurgence post-Covid-19. While China is witnessing a revival in domestic tourism, the economic recovery hasn’t been swift enough to restore consumer spending to pre-pandemic levels. This financial constraint has led to a shift in the travel preferences of many, particularly among the younger demographic who are keen on exploring without burning a hole in their pockets.

Spec Ops Tourism, a term coined to describe a form of travel that entails visiting multiple places within a tight timeframe and budget, has emerged as a trendy phrase in China. This trend is seen as a sign of potential consumer fatigue in family spending, casting a shadow on the country’s domestic tourism recovery post-pandemic​9​. The budget-conscious travel option became popular around April, just before China’s Labor Day holiday period, indicating a desire to explore amidst economic constraints.

An example that illuminates this trend is a 22-year-old graduate student, Cai Zhishan, who embarked on a travel spree during the May Day holiday. Her journey, which spanned across different provinces, was primarily facilitated by slow trains and buses to minimize expenses. Despite the strenuous nature of her travels – walking an average of 30,000 steps daily to reach various ancient temples, towers, and caves – her frugal choices, including overnight trains and budget accommodations, enabled her to spend only about 2,500 RMB (approximately $362) over nine days​10​.

The rise in Spec Ops Tourism reflects a rational response to the slow economic recovery, where individuals, especially the youth, are finding ways to satiate their wanderlust without straining their finances. This form of travel, characterized by its high efficiency and intensity, resonates with a significant 71.1% of Chinese young people who had travel plans at the beginning of 2023, according to a report titled “2023 Young People’s Revenge Travel Report”​11​.

These evolving travel behaviors underscore a broader narrative of resilience and adaptation among the Chinese populace, as they navigate the economic realities of the post-pandemic era. Through Spec Ops Tourism, many are carving out a path that allows for exploration and adventure, albeit within a framework that is mindful of financial prudence.

Pandemic Aftermath: The Unfulfilled Wanderlust

The pandemic has significantly impacted the lives of university students in China, especially those who entered university in 2020. These students found themselves unable to travel during the initial years of their university life due to epidemic prevention and control measures. However, with the gradual easing of restrictions and the arrival of 2023, a year that possibly marks their last chance to enjoy both winter and summer vacations before graduating, there’s a pent-up desire to explore and travel. This is where Spec Ops Tourism (特种兵旅游) comes into play as a remedy to the unfulfilled wanderlust.

Spec Ops Tourism, characterized by visiting multiple destinations within a condensed timeframe, caters to the suppressed travel desires of these students. The trend reflects a longing to break free from the routine of campus life and make the most out of the available time. For instance, university students are utilizing weekends or short holidays to embark on these high-intensity travel sprees, often sacrificing sleep to visit as many places as possible​12​.

The trend mirrors a broader societal narrative among Chinese youth, especially university students, who have recently transitioned into adulthood amidst a global pandemic. They have navigated through a phase of life rife with academic pressures and uncertainties, making the idea of seizing the moment to travel and explore an appealing choice. Spec Ops Tourism provides an outlet to temporarily step away from the usual campus life, alleviate stress, and satisfy their curiosity and adventurous spirit​13​.

Furthermore, the financial constraints, a byproduct of the economic aftermath of the pandemic, have also nudged students towards this budget-friendly travel option. The cost-effectiveness of Spec Ops Tourism, which often includes choosing slower modes of transport and budget accommodations, aligns with the limited spending capacity of university students, making it a viable option for exploring multiple destinations without breaking the bank​14​​15​.

Infrastructure Boom: The High-Speed Rail Network

Over the past decade, China has witnessed a substantial infrastructure boom, with a significant focus on developing its high-speed rail network. This investment has played a pivotal role in facilitating Spec Ops Tourism (特种兵旅游), a trend that involves traveling to multiple places within a short time span, by drastically reducing travel time between cities.

As of 2021, the total mileage of high-speed rail in China had exceeded 40,000 kilometers, with plans to further extend the network. In 2022, an additional 1,967 kilometers of high-speed rail lines were expected to be operational, underscoring China’s continuous investment in expanding this fast transit system​16​. The total railway mileage, including both high-speed and conventional rails, had surpassed 150,000 kilometers by the end of 2021, with an investment of 748.9 billion yuan (approximately 117 billion USD) channeled towards railway construction in that year alone​17​. By the end of 2022, the high-speed rail operational mileage was about 43,000 kilometers, with projections for 2023 hinting at an addition of over 2,500 kilometers of high-speed rail lines​18​.

The growth trajectory of China’s rail infrastructure from 2007 to 2015 is noteworthy. The annual new rail mileage increased from about 2,000 kilometers to over 8,000 kilometers during this period, reflecting a significant boost in fixed asset investment in the railway sector. This upsurge aligned with broader economic strategies aimed at stimulating stable economic growth through domestic demand expansion, which in turn accelerated urban rail transit construction​19​.

The extensive high-speed rail network has become a cornerstone for the burgeoning Spec Ops Tourism trend. By significantly reducing travel time between cities, the high-speed rail enables individuals to visit multiple places within a limited time frame, thus embodying the essence of Spec Ops Tourism. The convenience, speed, and extensive connectivity offered by the high-speed rail network not only bolster the appeal of Spec Ops Tourism but also reflect the synergy between infrastructure development and evolving travel behaviors in contemporary China.

The allure of adventure is an innate part of human nature, and the trend of Spec Ops Tourism (特种兵旅游) perfectly caters to this instinct. The idea of “conquering” multiple places in a short span is not just thrilling but also provides a sense of accomplishment and a narrative of exploration that’s rich with unique anecdotes. Each city, each locale holds its own story, its own flavor, and being able to immerse oneself in a plethora of cultural narratives within a tight schedule is akin to living multiple lives in fleeting yet fulfilling moments.

The diversity of China – from the ancient cultural richness of Xi’an to the modern architectural marvels of Shanghai, from the tranquil gardens of Suzhou to the bustling night markets of Beijing – offers a vast canvas for exploration. Spec Ops Tourism is like having a fast-forward button that allows you to experience the vast landscapes, the varying cultures, and the contrasting rhythms of urban and rural life that China encapsulates, all within a limited budget and timeframe.

Reflecting on the trajectory of Spec Ops Tourism, it’s fascinating how a convergence of economic, social, and infrastructural factors has nurtured this trend. The economic prudence, the unfulfilled wanderlust post-pandemic, and the robust high-speed rail network have collectively fostered an environment ripe for the growth of Spec Ops Tourism. It’s a manifestation of how societal circumstances and innovative infrastructure can shape travel behaviors and create new pathways to adventure.

As someone who has had the privilege of traversing through the diverse geographies of China, I encourage readers to consider this novel way of traveling. Spec Ops Tourism is not just a travel trend; it’s an invitation to discover the richness of experiences China has to offer. It’s about making every moment count, every journey memorable, and every experience enriching. So, as you contemplate your next adventure, perhaps consider marching to the rhythm of Spec Ops Tourism and uncover the multifaceted charm that China holds.