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Tent-pole Industries

Despite its recent surge in popularity, suburban glamping remains a niche market in China whose future depends on sustainable development and environmental protection

By Xie Ying , Wang Yu Updated Oct.1

The latest outdoor equipment is on display at the 15th Asia Outdoor Trade Show at the 751 D-fashion Design Square, Beijing. The exhibition was held from June 25 to June 27, 2021

I don’t know how they got my contact,” Zhang Dapeng said.  

After the Labor Day holiday (April 30-May 3), Zhang’s WeChat account blew up with dozens of friend requests from shopping mall managers inviting him to open an outlet for his camping equipment store, Gogogo.  

Other companies also contacted Zhang, from real estate firms to automakers, all seeking to hitch a ride on China’s camping craze. “They’re all trying to tie themselves to it, whether they have anything to do with camping or not,” Zhang told NewsChina. 

With consumption declining and ongoing pandemic controls restricting travel, camping in the rural outskirts of urban areas has taken off in China – especially glamping. A portmanteau of glamor and camping, glamping is a more casual, comfortable version of rugged recreational camping. First popularized in the 1990s in Europe, US and Japan, glamping favors high-end equipment, easily accessible campgrounds, and family-friendly amenities.  

“Since the Labor Day holiday, it seems like everyone has an obligatory camping post in their WeChat Moments. Some people even see going camping during the holidays as their duty,” Zihang, a campsite owner, told NewsChina.  

Social media is driving its popularity. According to lifestyle app Xiaohongshu (little red book), keyword searches for camping increased 746 percent over the Labor Day holidays compared to 2021. On Douyin, China’s TikTok, camping-related posts saw 10 billion views over the same period.  

While there is tremendous potential for camping to develop in China, some experts remain cautious. 

Base Glamp 
The trend has translated to consumption. By mid-May, high-end camping brands reportedly opened 23 pop-up stores in China. Data from Chinese travel app Ctrip shows that since the second half of 2021, sales of camping packages increased nearly tenfold, while according to travel booking app Qunar, bookings for camping packages over the Labor Day holidays tripled year-on-year. E-commerce giant JD.com revealed that since April 2022, sales volume of camping-related products like tents and ground mats grew 229 percent year-on-year.  

According to industrial analyst iiMedia Research, the Chinese camping market has reached 38.2 billion yuan (US$5.9b), with a low market penetration rate of 1 percent. Susu got into camping in 2021 after her city, Wuhan in Hubei Province, had endured months of lockdowns in the first waves of Covid-19. With strict pandemic restrictions still in place, many sought an accessible refuge.  

“We can’t keep our kids shut in at home. They need to play outside,” Susu said.  
Glamping provided the escape. Susu picked a family-friendly camp site she saw on Xiaohongshu that has showers, toilets and refrigerators. Then she equipped herself: she bought a tent, a large tarp, an air mattress, a portable gas stove, an inflatable canoe and two chairs.  

Zihang, 24, started camping in 2016 while studying in Canada. He and his friends would pitch a tent at a free campsite, a park or a grassy part of campus. “It was as natural as moving my bed outdoors,” he told NewsChina.  

After returning to China, Zihang tried rugged camping, as he enjoyed visiting wild areas off the beaten track, calling them “heaven for the eyes but hell on the body.” Such camping requires wilderness survival skills, making it not suitable for the inexperienced.  

Zihang found glamping in October 2021, when friends started talking about leading equipment makers like Danish brand Nordisk.  

“At the very beginning, we just discussed the products, but few bought them since they were very expensive,” Zihang said.  

Because glamping puts comfort before portability, equipment is larger, heavier and designed to look expensive.  

“In short, it comprises an array of luxurious things,” Zihang said, adding that he spent 20,000 yuan (US$3,000) on his glamping cache of tents, tarps, stoves and cookware. 

Zihang said he tried glamping not only because it was trendy but also to spend more time with family and friends. According to a camping consumption survey by iiMedia in October 2021, families with children are driving camping’s fast growth in China. In 2021, 62.8 percent of consumers camped with their families.

Bells and Whistles 
When preparing for her first trip, Susu budgeted around 1,000 yuan (US$154) for equipment, only to find it was not enough. Despite opting for cheaper domestic brands, she spent over three times as much.  

Her expenses continued. Susu’s tent was not tall enough to stand up in, so she bought a taller one. She ended up spending nearly 30,000 yuan (US$4,615) on equipment.  

Zihang said he was always upgrading his arsenal. “I keep browsing [e-commerce site] Taobao for equipment... I can’t remember how many things I’ve bought. It’s like buying things for your home – we think we need everything and keep buying,” he said.  
According to iiMedia’s 2021 survey, Chinese consumers spent an average 6,995 yuan (US$1,076) on camping equipment, with 47.6 percent spending over 5,000 yuan (US$770), 26.5 percent spending less than 3,000 yuan (US$462) and 25.9 percent spending between 3,000 and 5,000 yuan (US$462-770).  

Equipment dealers are cashing in. According to data from Naturehike, a camping equipment brand based in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, sales volume for 2020 exceeded 300 million yuan (US$46.2m) and 500 million yuan (US$76.9m) in 2021, with an annual growth rate of more than 40 percent.  

Zhejiang Nature, a listed manufacturer of OEM airbeds for brands like sporting goods chain Decathlon, generated 842 million yuan (US$129.5m) in operating revenue for 2021, 44.9 percent more than in 2020, with those in the domestic market increasing 33 percent to 170 million yuan (US$26.2m), according to its most recent financial statement.  

Prior to 2020, most of outdoor equipment supplier MobiGarden’s revenue came from overseas. That changed in 2021, when domestic market revenues grew by 90 percent, higher than the 28 percent growth from overseas. In Q1 2022, domestic sales rose to 98 percent. MobiGarden’s ratio for domestic business grew from 25 percent in 2020 to 33 percent for 2021, its financial reports said.  

The surge in demand caused severe supply shortages of goods from leading brands like Snow Peak from Japan. “You can’t buy Snow Peak for its listed price. Prices for second-hand Snow Peak items have doubled on [used marketplace app] Xianyu,” Zhang Dapeng told NewsChina.  

In 2018, Zhang became Nordisk’s official distributor for the Chinese mainland. “The first year, I only ordered 1 million yuan (US$150,000) in product. I didn’t think such expensive things would be so popular, only to find I sold out in two months. In 2019, I increased my orders to 5 million yuan (US$770,000) and soon sold out. In 2020, I expanded the order to 10 million yuan (US$1.5m) but still could not meet demand. Tents often went out of stock during busy seasons,” he said. 

Packing Profits 
Zihang said his first glamping trip in October 2021 caught him by surprise.  

“The campsite covered about 30 mu (20,000 square meters) and provided toilets, shower rooms and cooking utensils. Though not well equipped, it charged 100 yuan (US$15.4) per person and was crowded with visitors. The tents covering the grass looked like an army setting up a base camp there,” he told NewsChina.  

He had the idea of opening his own campsite. “I thought it would be really profitable, since the overheads were very low,” he said.  

He was convinced after visiting a high-end glamping site in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province. “It was like a tent hotel. The campsite charged 700 yuan (US$108) per customer, which included free afternoon tea, a free meal and a night’s stay in their tent,” he said.  

iiMedia’s data showed that in 2021, 68.3 percent of campers used their own equipment while 56.5 percent had tried all-inclusive campgrounds. In 2022, those numbers grew to 78.8 percent and 61.8 percent.  

For operators, all-inclusive camping is more profitable. “Supposing we spend around 150,000 yuan (US$23,000) buying 15 tents and equipment. Then, we charge 750 yuan (US$115) per customer. If each tent accommodates two and 10 of them are rented, we bring in 15,000 yuan (US$2,300) for one night. That is quite a high return,” Zihang said.  

Operators of private homestays and scenic areas are also looking to cash in. Qi Wanji, an avid camper in Beijing, told NewsChina that some scenic spots that once welcomed people to put up their own tents no longer do. “I don’t know the exact reason. Maybe they plan to remodel the spots into professional campsites for easier management and higher profits,” she said.  

According to iiMedia, the size of the Chinese campsite market surged from 7.7 billion yuan (US$1.2b) in 2014 to 29.9 billion yuan (US$4.6b) in 2021. iiMedia chief analyst Zhang Yi predicted that in the next five years, the Chinese campsite market will grow 17.09 percent annually, which means the market will reach 56.2 billion yuan (US$8.6b) by 2025.  

In an interview with the Guangming Daily in July, Dai Bin, director of the China Tourism Academy, claimed that the camping economy has moved into the phase of market development with products involving sports, leisure and dining. It also promises a viable use for rural land and stimulating rural tourism, Dai said. 

Quality Experiences 
However, Shi Jianqing, founder of Miye Camp, a campsite review platform, warned that the camping industry has already experienced bubbles. When Zihang turned to him for some suggestions about his campsite, he told him not to compete on price. 
“Those [low-quality] campsites are caught in a price war, and we have to outdo them on quality,” he said.  

According to Shi, although the number of campsites is growing in China, few provide unique experiences.  

Ningmeng, a camper who lives in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province, agreed. “New campsites mainly attract beginners by providing a fresh experience. But for experienced campers, many of those sites are similar – they have similar equipment, activities and accommodation such as log cabins or rooms with skylights, and even similar scenery,” she said.  

Both Ningmeng and Qi Wanji said that although they prefer camping with their own equipment, they do not mind paying more for a glamping site that provides a special experience or value-added services.  

But after rugged campgrounds upgrade to glamping sites, few can justify the increased fees.  

According to iiMedia’s 2021 customer satisfaction survey for campsites, increased price is the top concern for campers, followed by security and environment.  

Zhang Dapeng complained that many currently in the game know little about camping. “They entered the industry just because it’s profitable,” he said, adding that camping, especially glamping, is more than setting up fancy equipment and a tent.  

Domestic equipment brands face similar challenges, as they must compete to distinguish themselves from international brands through innovation and original designs. But given camping equipment’s lower profit margins compared to products like cosmetics, return on investment takes longer.  

Wang Jigang, founder of The Free Spirit, a domestic tent brand, has been designing tents since 1999. He told NewsChina that in its early days, Yoto Plus twice neared bankruptcy because of high overhead and low returns.  

Crystal, manager of M Square, an outdoor sports equipment supplier based in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, said she is unsettled by the hot market. “We have to spend much more on R&D, and once we launch a well-designed product, others soon copy it,” she complained. M Square injected one million yuan (US$150,000) to kick start its camping supply line last year, and has since considered pulling out many times, Crystal said.  

“The whole industry is still in a preliminary period in China and there are too many newcomers,” Zhang Jing (pseudonym), an investor in a leading Chinese investment company, told NewsChina, saying he does not think it is good time to invest in the industry. 

Setting New Sites 
Many in the industry are already worried about returns. Zihang told NewsChina he initially planned to invest 400,000 yuan (US$61,539) in his campsite and expects to be profitable within six months. But since opening in April, he has invested 700,000 yuan (US$107,692) and is still in the red. He attributed the longer-than-expected period to overconfidence in his campground’s more expensive areas, which provides high-end tents, and underestimating the number of visitors to its more affordable areas which allow campers to bring their own equipment. He also failed to factor in additional costs such as maintenance.  

Zhang Dapeng told NewsChina that although quality camping equipment is in short supply, manufacturers are cautious about increasing production.  

“They worry that growth is short term and simply driven by the pandemic,” he said. 
Mo Keli, who runs a tourism consultancy in Beijing, warned manufacturers about rushing to upgrade and expand. “Part of demand [for tourism] will flow into other fields and the economic slowdown will restrict consumption of middle-income groups in unnecessary fields like outdoor activities,” she said.  

According to Mo, the camping economy will surge when China’s average per capita income, currently US$12,000, reaches US$30,000.  

“As major consumers of outdoor activities, young people will not be economically capable of supporting the industry before per capita income reaches the required level... and middle-income groups may shrink during the economic slowdown,” she warned.  

Others are more optimistic. “Consumption contributes to 60 percent of China’s GDP and camping will be an excellent tool to stimulate consumption in the following years,” said iiMedia chief analyst Zhang Yi.  

The government has long-term plans. In 2014, the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a document on promoting consumption in sports, encouraging the construction of facilities for outdoor activities like camping and cycling. More recently, in a 2021-2025 program for public fitness released in March, the government once again proposed to popularize outdoor sports and improve facilities and equipment.  

Local governments have already taken measures. Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, designated 18 camping areas in local parks to become China’s first pilot “park city,” which prioritizes environmental protection and public green space. “The construction of a park city will provide important ecological guarantees for camping,” an official from the Chengdu government told NewsChina.  

Shi told NewsChina that cities like Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, Changsha, Hunan Province and Huzhou, Jiangsu Province are also cooperating with campground enterprises.  

“I don’t think camping is just a fad... Its development is like the sports market. Although sports was niche at first, it quickly developed when influencers promoted it and brands popularized it,” Lu Tunhua, president of MobiGarden, told NewsChina, adding that some luxury brands have already made forays into the camping industry. 

“Camping is a product created by urban development and demand [for higher-quality life]. I think camping will become a lifestyle when people learn more about it,” he added. 

Tents are lit up at a popular camp site at Wanjuanshutai Scenic Spot in Nanchuan District, Chongqing, June 18, 2022

A livestreamer in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, sells camping equipment from a local firm, May 18, 2022

Breaking New Ground 
However, Shi warned the present market is chaotic and unsustainable.  

Shi said he once discovered a spot for camping in the wilderness. When he returned one week later, it was ruined. “Many camping operators only care about hitting quotas and ignore educating beginners about environmental protection while camping,” he said.  

Many reports have exposed how campers destroy the local environment and ecology. A recent report by the Beijing News, for example, revealed how visitors to a popular campsite in Chengdu leave it covered with garbage and dump waste in a nearby river during public holidays. The report warned that many plants in Chengdu’s campgrounds were harmed and waters were polluted.  

The Chengdu government official said the city is working on industry regulations.  

Shi described the campsite industry as chaotic. “Many campground operators are trying to attract new campers with fake photos and information which will destroy trust in the industry,” he said.  

“Land use, security and environmental protection help regulate the camping industry. If there’s an extremely negative incident, it will mean disaster for the entire industry,” he added.  

But many are working to promote change. Both Shi and Zhang Dapeng run platforms that help beginners select quality equipment and campsites.  

Similarly, Zihang is cultivating interest among new campers with outdoor activities. “When beginners become more experienced, campsites will have more space to develop,” he said. “I guide my clients. I tell them you can say you don’t like my site, but you must like camping,” he added.  

“We have two gauges to measure whether it is time to invest in this field,” Zhang Jing said. “One is to see whether consumers are willing to purchase equipment at a campsite rather than only pay for an afternoon tea or meal. Such additional consumption means that they are willing to spend more at campsites and that we have a growing ratio of return customers. The other is to see whether domestic products are diverse enough to fulfill every camping need,” he said  

“As for quantity, we can’t say the growth is surging unless the number of campers increases to similar to that of square dancers (about 80-100 million). As for quality, only when we have more advanced and quality equipment and products, use scientific methods to guide and manage [the industry] and conduct deeper research and development, can outdoor activities become a stable and extensive lifestyle not easily be influenced by economic growth,” Mo said.