Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, becomes tourism hot spot

Forget the Great Wall of China, Shanghai’s Disneyland, and Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors.

The Chinese city pulling in the most visitors these days is Wuhan, the infamous epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

The capital of the landlocked Hubei province drew thousands of tourists during the country’s Golden Week celebration in October, easily outpacing its competitors. The city’s renewed popularity is a major boon for Chinese President Xi Jinping and underscores his response to a pandemic that has continued to cripple countries around the world.

“Beijing has this narrative that its handling of the coronavirus shows its superiority to Western governments, especially the United States,” Gordon Chang, a foreign affairs expert, told the Washington Examiner. “Highlighting Wuhan is a part of that.

More than 630 million trips were made to destinations inside China during this year’s Golden Week holiday. While the number fell short of the 782 million in 2019, it did provide a solid recovery for domestic tourism and gave Xi bragging rights. The weeklong celebration injected 466.6 billion Chinese yuan, about $69.9 billion, into the economy, according to the Chinese Ministry of Culture of Tourism.

Wuhan welcomed more than 18 million tourists between Oct. 1 and Oct. 8, according to data from the Wuhan Tourism Bureau.

The city’s popularity spike was fueled in part by patriotism as well as a not-so-subtle government warning of increased risks associated with traveling abroad.

“The message is: I don’t want to go to the United States because it’s a disease hellhole, so I am going to stay in my country,” Chang said.

Visitors who chose to go to Wuhan flocked to the city’s historic Yellow Crane Tower, which sits on Snake Hill beside the Yangtze River, according to travel booking site Trip.com. The 1,800-year-old tower is one of the Four Great Towers of China and has often appeared in ancient Chinese literary works. During Golden Week, the tower was lit up, and tickets were given to all domestic tourists as “a token of gratitude for nationwide assistance during the city’s fight with COVID-19,” CGTN reported.

The increase in visitors was a welcome sight to Wuhan residents, who saw their city sealed off on Jan. 23. Though all of China’s cities were under strict lockdown during the height of the pandemic, Wuhan’s closure was unique — no one was allowed to leave. The quarantine was lifted on April 8, but the city took a nasty hit, and its wet markets were repeatedly faulted for being a breeding ground for disease.

Since then, China’s government has gone to great lengths to help Wuhan shed its pandemic past and become a symbol of leadership trumping tragedy.

“China is showing the world that Wuhan is back in business,” Lucy Huang, a resident of Richmond, Virginia, who has family in Wuhan, told the Washington Examiner.

Huang believes that the increased interest in visiting Wuhan highlights Chinese tourists’ confidence in their leaders and sends a message that Beijing has weathered the coronavirus storm and come out stronger.

“No one knows for sure if they have beaten the virus because the numbers are so unreliable, but their message has been consistent,” she said. “America has turned [Dr. Anthony Fauci] into a political punching bag. One day, he’s an expert. The next day, he’s a fraud. They need to get on the same page because our leaders look incompetent on the world stage.”

China and the U.S. have engaged in a high-stakes war of words over who is to blame for the spread of the coronavirus.

President Trump has repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus,” while Beijing has floated the conspiracy theory that a U.S. military member went to Wuhan deliberately to infect people with COVID-19.

The coronavirus has infected 40.6 million people globally, according to the latest tally by Johns Hopkins University. More than 1.1 million people have died from the disease.