Travelling to be seen: the rise of daka tourism in China

When the Chinese first began to travel overseas, the cliché was that they loved to take short trips covering as many destinations and countries as possible. And while this contained some truth in the early days, Chinese travel patterns have evolved towards longer, more in-depth holidays. Getting under the skin of a destination and enjoying authentic local experiences has fast moved to the top of the Chinese tourist’s wishlist.

Yet there are as many different travel styles as there are Chinese tourists – millions – and the latest millennial trend is daka tourism. Daka tourism – essentially to be seen to have been somewhere, or preferably many places – is enjoying its time in the sun as the latest trend driving domestic travel in China.

In the Middle Kingdom, there is kudos to be seen to have visited significant and fashionable places, especially temporary ones. And how best to show you have visited somewhere? Through sharing digital video evidence on Douyin. Douyin is the original, censored version of Tik Tok with 230 million monthly users. Where Tik Tok rules for short video content in the USA and Europe, its censored parent Douyin rules in China. At the heart of Chinese digital trends, it’s through Douyin that daka culture has really taken off.

“Punching in”

The term daka originally refers to “punching in”, the act of using a card to punch in and out of work. In its latest form daka tells of marking one’s visit to a hot destination by posting on social media.

“Make every second count” is Douyin’s slogan, and this is reflected in the proliferation of short destination videos in the app.

Unexpected consequences of daka include the recent surge in travellers to Zhanjiang, an otherwise unremarkable city in Guangdong province. Location of the hit tv show Bad Kids, Zhanjiang is experiencing an unexpected boom in visitors to locations featured in the drama, including a swimming pool which has achieved the dizzying heights of 2,000 visitors daily. And in the city of Chongqing, the mock-traditional style of architecture of a stilt-house complex in Honyadong became the second-most popular attraction in China after the Forbidden City thanks to a surge in Douyin coverage.

Selfies in space

Daka culture has its roots, of course, in selfies. Selfies have gradually infiltrated our most important moments over the last few years, making experiences more real and memorable by the act of digitally memorialising them. We usually think of selfies as a recent digital trend, but their history actually goes back centuries. The Library of Congress in the USA holds a picture Robert Cornelius took of himself in 1839, believed to be the world’s first photographic selfie. Second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, took the first space selfie in 1966, and what are Rembrandt’s self-portraits than a selfie by slower means? The 1990s saw selfies take grip in Japan as part of kawaii [cute] culture. In 2001 Instagram introduced auto filters for beautifying faces. And so in 2020 we arrive at daka culture.

Ephemeral beauty

Daka culture is related to, but not the same as, the search for Instagrammable backgrounds. While London’s Sketch hopes to use its soft pink benches to attract Instagrammers for years to come, a daka-friendly venue is more likely to be a pop-up, temporary in its location and especially on-trend in its looks.

Pre-pandemic China saw daku zu – daka tribes – touring cities to “punch as many destination cards as possible”. Travel agents started offering daka tours, and social media-friendly installations are even taking off in the art world. Savvy destinations and attractions ‘build in’ striking views and backgrounds to their offering, and plan PR-worthy temporary installations. Tourism brands work with Key Opinion Leaders and influencers on Douyin to encourage them to visit to put them on the daka map.

It will be fascinating to see how long daka tourism endures – especially if it turns out to be as fleeting as the visits it inspires.

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