ZIBO, China — The flame-shaped neon archway was visible from miles away, which was good since there was little other reason for anyone to be in that part of town, an expanse of fields outside an industrial city in eastern China. The lights flickered between icy blue and red-hot, leaping toward the night sky beside a jumbo sign: “Zibo Barbecue Experiential Ground.”
And what an experience awaited. Inside this Coachella barbecue, visitors could pose with a mascot dressed like a meat skewer. They could watch a concert against an LED backdrop of radiating flames. They could eat from one of the hundreds of grills scattered across the grounds the size of 12 football fields — if they waited hours for a table, and if their chosen meat purveyor hadn’t run out of food.
Zibo, a once-obscure chemical manufacturing city in Shandong province, has suddenly strangely — thanks to, of all things, barbecue — turned into China’s hottest tourist destination.
This city of 4.7 million people received 4.8 million visitors in March after it began attracting notice on social media. During a public holiday earlier this month, a Zibo vegetable market was more popular than the Great Wall, according to a mapping service. High-speed rail tickets from Beijing sold out one minute after their release.
The local government has set up 21 buses to ferry visitors from the train station directly to barbecue restaurants. They erected the barbecue festival on the site of a sprawling seafood market, the only place big enough to host 10,000 people.
“We’ve all had good food before, but this kind of hustle and bustle, this warmth, is hard to find,” said Zhang Kexin, a college senior who, within half an hour of arriving in Zibo during the recent holiday, bought six souvenir tubs of pan-fried crackers, another local specialty.
Zhang had traveled 500 miles from Shanxi province — not a journey she had ever considered before, though Zibo was a friend’s hometown. “I thought it seemed like a very ordinary place,” she laughed.
The question of why, exactly, this ordinary place took off has absorbed seemingly all of China, with officials in other cities even sending research teams to Zibo to try and emulate its success. Most explanations attribute the craze’s origins to college students, some of whom posted on social media about the joys of the local barbecue style. Diners grill their own skewers on tabletop charcoal stoves, which lends the meal a DIY feel, and wrap them in a local specialty of tortilla-like shells, alongside a sprig of raw green onion and a smear of hot sauce.
The cheap prices were also a draw — skewers start at 15 cents at the most popular restaurants — so other young people began flocking to town. Influencers followed.
But perhaps most crucial has been the very fact of how unexpected Zibo’s rise was. As a result, locals — seemingly unable to believe their luck — have done all they can to keep the frenzy alive.
Residents have offered their homes to strangers who couldn’t find hotels. After some social media users joked that they wanted eye candy with their barbecue, officials organized a “180 group” — men taller than 180 centimeters, or 5 feet, 11 inches, and wearing suits — to greet train station arrivals.
At the station during the May 1 holiday, there were no suited men in sight. But there were plenty of other cheery greeters, handing out water bottles, sunscreen, watermelon (grown in a Zibo suburb), mouthwash (for after barbecue), even flasks of local liquor.
“Welcome, out-of-town visitors! I hope you have fun!” a woman shouted as she pressed pumpkin-flavored crackers into arrivals’ hands, many of which were already overflowing with freebies.
For many visitors, the crazy crowds are the point, after China’s prolonged COVID-19 lockdowns. At one of the most popular barbecue restaurants, where hundreds of diners perched on tiny folding stools around outdoor grills, officials had designated an elevated viewing platform just for tourists to watch the people below eat, through a cloud of cumin-scented smoke.
Li Yang, a local, snagged a table around 6 p.m., after having lined up at 3 a.m. His commute to his job at a steel company was now clogged with traffic. But he didn’t mind.
“To see all this liveliness, after three years of the pandemic, my heart feels pretty warm,” he shouted, over the sounds of maracas shaken by four men, seemingly unaffiliated with the restaurant, who were gallivanting between tables serenading diners.
Several tables away, Bai Lingbin, 25, was already digging in, having waited since midnight. His grill, shared with four other men, was piled with toothpick-thin skewers laced with crispy pork skin, sweet potatoes and wraps.
Bai, who had traveled from Anhui province, was frank: He prefers the barbecue in northeastern China, another famous grilling region. But, he declared as he raised a beer to his table mates, whom he’d met in line: “The atmosphere here is the best.”
Still, some locals secretly profess a desire to see their hometown’s sudden fame ebb, at least a little.
Staff at barbecue restaurants said they were sleeping only a few hours each night. Residents who used to buy groceries at the suddenly popular vegetable market — where there is now nary a vegetable in sight, as snack and souvenir vendors have piled in — must find their produce elsewhere.
There was intense pressure to keep customers happy, though, because the government was determined to maintain Zibo’s streak, said Wang Jiuyuan, the manager of a barbecue spot a 30-minute drive from the city center, yet still overrun. Wang had pasted posters at every table, asking customers for patience because many waiters spoke only the local dialect.
“We’re afraid of having a complaint filed against us because as long as it’s an out-of-town customer, the government will accept it, whether it’s reasonable or not,” Wang said, adding that the restaurant had been scolded after a customer complained about not being seated.
Some online have worried that the pressure on locals to be accommodating has gone too far, especially after a viral video showed one restaurant owner kneeling to ask forgiveness from a customer upset by long lines.
Last month, even the Zibo government seemed to pull back, urging people to visit other nearby cities, because it was overwhelmed.
Down a quiet road on the outskirts of the city, workers in aging factories were kneading handmade sesame crisps, a local delicacy that had also seen a boost in orders as tourists poured in, said Gao Juan, a factory owner.
Gao had considered pivoting to making barbecue wraps, which were in even higher demand. Vendors of those wraps were already taking orders for August.
But the machines for making those wraps were sold out. Gao was willing to take a long view about whether the craze would last.
“When there’s a shortage in the market, it’s easy to overreact,” she said. “Let’s wait and see.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.