COVID limits ability for tourism, while urban waterways beckon enthusiasts

People enjoy their paddleboarding time on the Liangma River in Beijing in August. (CHEN XIAOGEN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

During the summer just passed, an increasing number of recreational enthusiasts have been getting a splash of pleasure from paddling the waters and cruising the rivers in China's urban areas and elsewhere.

Stand-up paddling (SUP), or paddleboarding, has been receiving increasing attention from consumers since the COVID-19 outbreak as city dwellers have often been prevented from taking leisure trips amid pandemic prevention and control reasons, thus spurring growing business opportunities.

More inland cities are expected to see their residents embrace stand-up paddling. In the pandemic-related era, the sport and its related industries still boast strong growth potential.

An Fuxiu, founder of Sportbank, a Beijing-based sports industry think tank

"No matter whether I'm in a canal, lake or river, the gentle sound of the water lapping, the breeze and the concentration I need to stay balanced make it a soothing and calming activity, which is very appealing to me amid work and life pressures, especially facing COVID-19 resurgences, travel restrictions," said Beijing resident Ma Yuan.

Once a surfing fan, Ma got stuck in an inland city during a COVID-19 resurgence and began taking part in outdoor activities that don't require long-distance travel — like SUP and surf skating.

Urban waterways have become new territories for SUP lovers, and related sports consumption patterns are also changing. In Beijing, paddleboarding on rivers such as the Liangma, Kunyu and Tonghui has become a trendy urban water sport, and it has fueled growing business opportunities for related clubs, coaches and equipment manufacturers.

"More inland cities are expected to see their residents embrace stand-up paddling. In the pandemic-related era, the sport and its related industries still boast strong growth potential," said An Fuxiu, founder of Sportbank, a Beijing-based sports industry think tank.

"Now, the main consumer group of SUP is mostly comprised of elite urban families who have a certain understanding of water-based sports. They hope to raise their children's interest in exercising and improve their courage and independence through this unordinary sport," An said.

She added that most paddleboarders come from top-tier cities and regions with abundant waterways. Some college students and people who have a strong willingness to express themselves are also frequent participants.

The popularity of SUP will not only drive the development of upstream and downstream industries, such as training, paddle manufacturing, water area planning and venue construction, but also fuel the popularity of swimming, surfing and other water sports, An said.

Ma isn't the only one to have fallen for paddleboarding. To date, relevant posts on lifestyle-sharing platform Xiaohongshu have exceeded 60,000. Last year, the number of related posts surged fivefold year-on-year. On short-video platform Douyin, posts hashtagged SUP have a total of over 360 million displays, and the post garnering the highest views amassed over 143,000 likes.

With vivid words and engaging photos or videos to describe the fun, the posts won numerous interactive comments, topping the list of trending topics, and went viral across social media platforms. Posters also wrote about skill tutorials, outfit recommendations and other leisure activities to consider.

Wang Xue, a co-founder of Beijing-based AquaX, a paddleboarding training school, told news outlet that the sport is winning rising recognition among consumers.

"Last year, we had about 500 registered members. While in the first half of this year, the number already exceeded 600," Wang said.

He Qun, a SUP fan who usually goes to Quye Kayaking, a base for SUP and kayaking in Beijing, said the club's business has seen a much better performance than in previous years.

"SUP costs about 220 yuan ($31) per person per hour. For the past few weeks, I went there and needed to wait in queues for at least an hour. This seldom happened last year," he said.

Besides paddleboarding, some people tend to lie on paddleboards and a few even sit on the paddleboards with their pets while enjoying leisure time.

"On sunny afternoons, I would invite a few friends to join me for paddleboarding. We like to be well-dressed, bring our furry friends and all kinds of drinks, find good angles and take photos for our social media posts. I enjoy reading all of the comments and making a few new friends online. I like the interactions," said Beijing resident Zhang Di.

Zhang said many clubs have now hired professional photographers and launched photo-taking services for customers seeking such services, and it has become a new revenue growth point for them.

The sport has also gained popularity among consumers in smaller cities. Xu Jiajun, head of a sports equipment manufacturer in Huzhou, Zhejiang province, told China Business Herald that his company has seen a better-than-expected business performance, buoyed by increasing enthusiasm for the sport among domestic consumers.

From January to August, Xu said sales of SUP boards at his company grew 30 percent year-on-year, while sales of relevant accessories surged over 100 percent year-on-year during the period.

"In the past few years, about 80 percent of our orders came from European and US companies, while this year, about 50 percent of the orders came from the domestic market," Xu said.

In Chengdu, Sichuan province in Southwest China, water parks and sightseeing spots with rivers or lakes have become the most popular choices for tourists who are looking for pleasure, according to Tongcheng Travel, a Suzhou, Jiangsu province-based online travel agency.

Yang Shaohua, a SUP coach at a Changsha-based water sports base in Hunan province, said this summer, the number of people who went to the base to experience SUP was triple that of last year. Consumers are also gradually shifting from the winter swimming crowd aged above 40 to young people and teenagers, among whom females make up about 70 percent of the total.

He Qiang, a coach at a Chongqing-based SUP training club, said the number of his students grew from fewer than 30 last year to nearly 150 this past summer.

"I had to increase my classes from three times a week to six. For each two-hour experience session, the club charges about 300 yuan per person. After taking the experience class, many students tend to pay for a whole-year membership. Last month, the club saw 300 newly-registered members who were attracted by SUP," He said.

Xiao Qing, a salesman at a local Decathlon store in Chongqing, said in the past two months, the store has seen an increasing number of consumers ask for SUP equipment. Accordingly, the store has arranged SUP apparel and accessories to attract more interested consumers.

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