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The flame-shaped neon pylon was visible from miles away, which was good because there was no other reason for anyone to be in that part of town, an expanse of farmland outside an industrial city in eastern China. The lights flickered between icy blue and red-hot, leaping toward the night sky next to a jumbo sign: “Zeebo Barbecue Experimental Ground.”

And what an experience awaited. Inside this Coachella barbecue, visitors can pose with a mascot dressed like a skewer of meat. They could watch a concert against an LED backdrop of flames. They could eat from one of hundreds of grills scattered across a field the size of 12 football fields—if they waited hours for a table, and if their chosen meat parts didn’t run out of food.

Zibo, a once obscure chemical manufacturing town in Shandong province, has suddenly strangely — thanks to, of all things barbecue — turned into China’s hottest tourist destination.

The city of 4.7 million received 4.8 million visitors in March, after 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 the mapping service. High-speed rail tickets from Beijing sold out minutes after they were issued.

The local government has set up 21 buses to ferry visitors directly from the train station to the barbecue restaurant. He built a barbecue festival on the site of a huge seafood market, large enough to host 10,000 people.

“We’ve all had good food before, but this kind of hustle and bustle, this heat, is difficult,” said Zhang Kexin, a college senior who, within half an hour of arriving in Zibo during a recent vacation, Bought six souvenir tubs of fried crackers, another local specialty.

Ms. Zhang had traveled 500 miles from Shanxi province – not a trip she had ever thought of before, although Zibo was a friend’s hometown. “I thought it looked like a very normal place,” she laughed.

The question of why this simple place took off has seemingly absorbed all of China, with officials in other cities as well. send research team to zibo To try and emulate its success. Most explanations attribute the genesis of the fad to college students, some of whom posted on social media about the delights of the local barbecue style. Diners grill their own skewers on tabletop charcoal stoves, which gives the meal a DIY feel, and wrap them in the local specialty of tortilla-like shells with a sprig of raw green onions and a smear of hot sauce.

The cheap prices were also an attraction – skewers start at 15 cents at the most popular restaurants – so other young people flocked to the city. Influencers followed.

But perhaps the most important fact is how unexpected Zibo’s rise was. As a result, the locals – seemingly unable to believe their luck – have done everything they can to keep the frenzy alive.

Residents have offered their homes to strangers who could not find a hotel. Some social media users joked that they wanted eye candy with their barbecues, officers organised A “180 group” – men over 180 cm or 5 ft 11 in tall, and dressed in suits – arrived at the train station to greet arrivals.

There was no suitable person at the station during the 1 May holiday. But there were plenty of other cheery greeters, handing out bottles of water, sunscreen, watermelons (grown in the Zibo suburb), mouthwash (after the barbecue), even flasks of local liquor.

“Welcome, out-of-town visitor! Hope you enjoy!” A woman shouted as she shoved pumpkin-flavored crackers into the hands of arrivals, many of whom were already free-flowing.

For many visitors, the mad rush is the point after China’s prolonged Covid lockdown. At one of the most popular barbecue restaurants, where hundreds of diners sat on tiny folding stools around an outdoor grill, officials erected an elevated viewing platform for tourists to watch people below through a cloud of cumin-scented smoke was named.

Li Yang, a local, had nabbed a table around 6 p.m., after queuing up at 3 a.m. His commute to his job at a steel company was now packed with traffic. But he didn’t mind.

“To see all this liveliness, three years after the pandemic, makes my heart feel so warm,” he shouted, over the sounds of maracas rocked by four men, seemingly unfazed, from the restaurant, which was between tables serenading diners. Were galloping.

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 with crispy pork skin, sweet potatoes and wraps.

Mr. Bai, who traveled from Anhui province, was clear: He loves barbecue in northeast China, another famous grilling region. But, he declared as he raised a beer to his table mates he met in line: “The atmosphere here is the best.”

Still, some locals secretly yearn to see at least a little bit of their hometown’s sudden fame.

Employees of the barbecue restaurant said they were sleeping only a few hours each night. Residents who used to buy groceries at the suddenly popular vegetable market – where there are no more vegetables in sight as snack and souvenir vendors pile in – must find their produce elsewhere.

But there was immense pressure to keep customers happy, as the government was determined to maintain Zibo’s streak, said Wang Jiuyuan, manager of a barbecue spot a 30-minute drive from the city center, yet still outnumbered. Has gone. Mr Wang had pasted posters on every table, asking customers to be patient as many waiters spoke only the local dialect.

“We are afraid of complaints being filed against us, because as long as it is an out-of-town customer, the government will accept it, whether it is fair or not,” Mr. Wang said, adding the restaurant was not seated by a customer. He had to be scolded for complaining about giving.

Some online have worried that the pressure on locals to adjust has gone too far, especially after a viral video appeared to show a restaurant owner kneeling down to apologize to a customer upset by long lines.

Last month, even the Zibo government seemed to be pushing back, urging people to move to other nearby towns as it was overwhelmed.

Down a quiet street on the outskirts of the city, workers in old factories were kneading handmade sesame crisps, a local delicacy that had also seen a surge in orders, said Gao Xuan, a factory owner.

Ms. Gao considered pivoting to making barbecue wraps, which were in even greater demand. Sellers of those wraps were already taking orders for August.

But the machines for making those wraps were sold. Ms. Gao was willing to take a long look at whether the craze was here to stay.

“When the market is down, it’s easy to react,” she said. “let’s wait and see.”

li yu Contributed to research.

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