(CNN) – The scene at the Great Wall of China last week would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.
Photos of the tourist attraction in Beijing last weekend show huge crowds on the winding wall, squeezed together in a confined space and pushing past each other through narrow doors. Most wear face masks – but some people, including young children, pulled their masks down to their chins, and some appear to have done without masks entirely.
It’s Golden Week – an eight-day national holiday, one of China’s busiest annual travel periods, and a major test for the country as it emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.China’s officially reported virus numbers have remained low since the spring. There have been a few flare-ups, including a cluster in Beijing in June, but those were hit with immediate lockdowns and mass testing, and the outbreaks were contained within weeks.
With nearly zero local broadcasts, people flocked to bus stops, airports, and transportation hubs to travel around the country on vacation that began October 1. Local authorities competed to attract tourists, with provincial and local governments issuing travel vouchers and tourist issuing attractions with free or discounted tickets.
The Great Wall has also prepared for the onslaught of tourists. The most popular part of the wall – the Badaling part – reopened at the end of March, albeit with new restrictions such as requiring visitors to reserve tickets in advance.
Chinese tourists crowd in a doorway on a section of the Great Wall of China on October 4th.
Kevin Frayer / Getty Images
In a notice released on September 29, the Badaling Special Administrative Region office – a government agency that manages the Great Wall – warned visitors to continue to obey restrictions during the holiday season.
These restrictions include social distancing by keeping one meter apart. “It is strictly forbidden to gather,” the statement said. Previous guidelines posted on the Great Wall of China website reminded tourists to wear their face masks throughout their visit and urged them to “obey the instructions and management of the museum staff.”
Neither of these restrictions appeared to be followed closely this week as naked tourists huddled against the wall.
Usually more than 10 million people visit the Great Wall each year. The Badaling section, known to be overcrowded with local and international tourists, is so popular that officials set a limit of 65,000 visitors per day as of June 2019.
Tickets to the Badaling area of the Great Wall of China were completely sold out during the Golden Week vacation.
Kevin Frayer / Getty Images
When the section reopened in March, the number of daily visitors was limited to 30% of normal capacity by new restrictions. Before the Golden Week celebrations, authorities raised this limit to 75% of normal capacity, which is a daily limit of 48,750 visitors.
On the holidays of the Golden Week – next to the New Year holidays in China, the longest in China – middle-class Chinese traditionally travel abroad in large numbers. This year, visa restrictions, quarantine requirements, a lack of international flights and the ongoing threat of Covid-19 are causing Chinese travelers to search domestically for travel instead.
In just the first four days of the vacation, China took 425 million domestic tourist trips, generating more than $ 45 billion in tourism revenue, according to the Department of Culture and Tourism.
“We saw more tourists this year than in previous years. The number of daily tourists has doubled since we exempted admission,” a Wuhan Yellow Crane Tower attraction official said last week, according to the state-run media Global Times. Millions of people in China are traveling again during the first major vacation since the Covid-19 outbreak. If China shows its confidence in containing the pandemic, is there a risk in getting the country moving? CNN’s David Culver reports.
This week’s loose restrictions and disregard for social distancing rules are in stark contrast to the fear that overshadowed China’s last major travel period – the New Year holiday in late January when the coronavirus outbreak swept through Wuhan.
On January 23, two days before the New Year celebrations, the Chinese government imprisoned Wuhan – but by that time the virus had already spread across the country as hundreds of millions of Chinese people traveled on vacation.
As more information about the virus emerged, the Chinese transport hubs were emptied. Those still out and about usually wore full protective gear, including plastic gloves, ponchos, helmets, face covers, and goggles.
The sense of impending danger has largely subsided, said Chen Qianmei, a 29-year-old from southern Guangzhou, who flew to Shanghai on vacation last week.
“I think China is pretty much in control of (the virus),” she told CNN. “I wear masks and bring alcohol wipes to clean my hands, especially before I eat – although few people in Shanghai currently wear masks.”
CNN’s Nectar Gan contributed to this report.