Passengers disembark from the first commercial flight to arrive at Xiangxi Biancheng Airport in Hunan Province on August 18 (XINHUA)
When an airliner from Beijing rumbled down the tarmac at Xiangxi Biancheng Airport in Hunan Province in central China around 10 a.m. on August 18, it brought excitement to local residents, many of whom have never even been on a plane.
It was the first flight to arrive at the airport following five years of construction and over 2 billion yuan ($275 million) of investment. Nestled among the mountains in Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, the airport is shaped like a phoenix spreading its wings.
About 2.5 hours later, 65 residents from Shibadong Village, located only 15 km from the airport, boarded the first flight to depart from this new airport, headed for Beijing. But just one decade ago, their village was still mired in extreme poverty.
"This was my first time on a plane," 77-year-old villager Long Yuanzhang told Hunan Daily. "I was dreaming of taking a plane to Beijing from this airport since construction on it started five years ago. And today, my dream has come true."
Marking the 11th airport in Hunan, Xiangxi Biancheng offers flights to Beijing and Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province in south China, all operated by Beijing Capital Airlines.
The aviation web
A recent Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) report showed that as of 2022, China's mainland featured 254 civil transportation airports. Among them, 18 airports are large ones with annual passenger throughput of over 10 million, 30 are medium-sized ones with a throughput of 2 to 10 million and 206 are small ones with a throughput below 2 million.
The 18 large ones, in total, accounted for 52.8 percent of the total passenger throughput of China's mainland in 2022; the medium-sized ones, 33.3 percent and the remaining small ones, only 13.8 percent.
"Despite their modest passenger throughput," CAAC's deputy head Han Jun said at a forum on April 12. "The small and medium-sized airports scattered across the country play a crucial role as an integral part of the modern integrated transportation system."
That's because these hidden gems have a significant impact on improving the local investment environment and expanding openness.
Recent years have witnessed several measures to increase passenger traffic flow at small airports, one of which is the so-called "blind box" plane ticket program. Under the program, consumers pay in advance for a round-trip ticket at a price well below the market rate. They then draw monthly from a pool of airports. If the draw is for the airport of their choice, they can confirm their order.
Yang Yue, a 27-year-old from Beijing, is a fan of said blind boxes. He loves to go to every small airport he randomly draws and records everything, from his arrival to his exploration of nearby small cities, on camera. His "documentaries" have earned him nearly 8 million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
He shared his experience of flying to Linyi, a small city in the coastal province of Shandong, in a recent video that racked up more than 570,000 likes. Accompanied by some of his local followers, Yang wholly immersed himself in the local customs, scenery and delicacies.
He went to climb the Tianmeng Mountain—and had a party on a "beach"—the city is not by the sea, but locals refer to the urban river bank as a "beach" because it has sand.
He even got up at 2:30 a.m. to try the local breakfast called sa, or a kind of beef soup. "It's surprising to know that locals line up at 2:30 in the morning for a sip of sa," he said in the video. "It might be the earliest breakfast I've ever had."
Many of his followers comment that these videos have shifted their attention away from popular travel destinations to lesser-known cities—and their unique charm.
"For many of these small cities, we'd probably never visit them [had we not seen the videos]," one follower wrote. "But now, I want to go to some of these places. Compared with popular travel cities, small cities are cheaper, and you can find unmapped landscapes there."
"These airports serve as gateways to connect the nation's diverse landscapes and cultures, which are often ignored by 'mainstream' travelers," Yang said in a video on Douyin.
More to explore
A while back, Wang Yan, a college teacher in Beijing, realized that transferring at small airports, courtesy of the blind box ticket, was a great way to save on travel costs. "Can you imagine I spent just 660 yuan ($90) on a return trip to Xinjiang [Uygur Autonomous Region in northwest China]?" she told Beijing Review, a sense of excitement shimmering through. "Normally a one-way ticket will cost you over 1,000 yuan ($139)."
She'd signed up for the blind box ticket, her heart set on (eventually) drawing a destination in Xinjiang. After three months of trying her luck, she finally got a ticket to Turpan Airport, a three-hour drive from the airport in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang. "When you know the place you want to visit is going to be expensive all the way, this (blind box ticket) is a very good alternative," she said. "But you have to be patient—and lucky."
Some travelers even connected with their connection on a deeper level. Liu Tong, a 33-year-old from Beijing, uncovered a hidden gem called Luliang in Shanxi Province. "I've been there three times in August alone, first just to transfer at its local airport in a bid to save money as I made my way from Beijing to Xi'an in Shaanxi Province," he told Beijing Review.
From Beijing to Luliang, an economy ticket only cost a bit over 200 yuan ($27) and a seat in business class is just over 300 yuan ($41). The cheap tickets also make Luliang an optimal choice for a spot of weekend travel.
For example, as Beijing suffocated in an unrelenting heat wave this summer, Liu took another trip to Luliang. "It is much cooler than Beijing there. And I think it will get popular in the future as a summer getaway for Beijingers."
This experience also inspired him to explore more travel routes via small airports, including a trip to the island county of Changhai in Dalian City, Liaoning Province in northeast China. The county is home to China's smallest airport.
The tiny airport has only flights to the larger airport in Dalian. The journey takes about half an hour and a one-way ticket costs 160 yuan ($22). "The view must be spectacular as you're almost just hovering above the sea," Liu said. "Given a helicopter tour at many scenic spots costs around 1,000 yuan ($137), this trip is a treat!"
CAAC deputy head Han disclosed that more small airports will be built in the following years to improve the layout of China's airport network. "Among the country's circa 330 prefecture-level cities, over 100 still have no airports. By 2035, the number of transport airports is expected to reach 400," he said.
(Print Edition Title: Gate to Gateway)
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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