WHEN it comes to outbound tourism, China remains the world’s biggest spender. In 2016, 135 million Chinese nationals left their borders and pumped US$261 billion into other economies, 12 percent more than the previous year.
The trend, forecasts say, is expected to continue on this upward trajectory for years to come, with estimates even suggesting that current figures will double by 2022.
Speaking to Xinhua recently, Xu Jing, the United Nations World Travel Organization’s (UNWTO) Asia Pacific director, labelled the growth a “real revolution”. Then last month, UNWTO secretary-general Taleb Rifai said Chinese tourists were the “most powerful single source of change in the tourism industry”, according to South China Morning Post.
Unfortunately, the image of Chinese tourists abroad remains negative. Over the years, international media have told countless stories of Chinese tourists vandalizing temples, opening emergency-exits on planes, defecating on the streets, and even flinging coins into jet engines for “good luck”.
To minimize further damage of its reputation, the Chinese government last year even created a blacklist of nine “sins”:
- Interfering with aircraft or public transport;
- Causing damage to public facilities;
- Offending local traditions, cultures or living habits;
- Destroying cultural and historical relics;
- Participating in gambling, prostitution or drug use;
- Threatening public, personal or property safety;
- Damaging ecosystem, breaking wildlife protection regulations;
- Perpetuating “low-taste or superstitious” ideas;
- Other behavior that causes a negative impact.
Committing any one of these misdemeanors results in a minimum two-year travel ban. Yet, reports of bad behavior continue to surface, and more often than not will trigger a litany of insults against the Chinese. In fact, the habits of Chinese tour groups and tourists have become a subject of mirth on social media.
So why hasn’t this changed? Or is it already undergoing a period of change, though too imperceptible to notice just yet?
We look to the past for a little added context.
Throughout history, many foreigners have been criticized for their etiquette abroad – China, a resurgent Asian superpower, is perhaps just the latest to fall under public scrutiny.
Take for example, the teenage Chinese boy who defaced a temple in Luxor. The very same temple was vandalized by a French poet, a British travel writer, a Scottish millionaire and a Royal Navy Captain.
The poor behavior of some Chinese tourists has been put down to the Cultural Revolution, in which books were burned and traditional education was replaced with hard, physical labor. During this time, China’s tradition, culture and values were destroyed. There was competition to survive, which ingrained a “me first” mentality into the youth of that time.
Eventually, China became the superpower that it is today, creating an abundance of money, yet a lack of education – and knowledge – of the world outside its “Middle Kingdom.”
Dr Wolfgang Georg Arlt, founder and director of China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI), explained this further:
“Cultural Revolution plus modernization/globalization/urbanization have severely damaged the connection between traditional Chinese culture and the modern life in China today.
“The same process has created many newly-rich Chinese who have money but little education or style and do indeed expect that rules can be bent if you have enough money or influence, as is still the case in many ways in China.”
But the offspring of this generation seem to be heralding a change in the trend, giving rise to what we will call the ‘new’ Chinese tourist – often ‘millennials’ – who are demanding a different travel experience. This new cohort have disposable incomes or come from families with disposable incomes, are digitally-connected, independent; and are willing to spend.
Arlt says destination marketers and tourism operators are doing their best to adapt their businesses to cater for the Chinese market. But a blanket one-size-fits-all approach isn’t always going to be successful – what is deemed as fitting for one segment of Chinese tourists won’t necessarily be suitable for another, and vice versa.
“Many service providers overdo it and put Red Lanterns everywhere and do things which they consider ‘Chinese’ but are, by younger Chinese, seen as old-fashioned country style.
“First-time package tour travelers mostly prefer Chinese food, but experienced travelers want to eat local food as part of the experience,” he said.
One company offering a more local experience is UK tour operator BeiWei 55 Degrees. They favor a quality over quantity approach. Co- founder, Jay Smith, said:
“Ultimately, we are trying to target the more FIT (free and independent) Chinese travelers, who are slightly more gregarious and in search of a more local, in-depth experience.
“We provide city walking tours in Chinese, which do include the main sights, but which are also run by native British Mandarin-speaking guides and involve a healthy amount of history and immersive experiences at a slower pace, such as a pint in a local pub.”
When asked about the ‘new’ Chinese tourist and how businesses can adapt, he said:
“I think the ‘new’ Chinese traveler is yet to be defined, and it will take time to do so. In any case, generalizing nations is never a good idea, especially when it is one of 1.3 billion people.
“Undoubtedly though, in my opinion, the younger generations are more independent and world-wary, and companies have to learn to adapt to give them that exclusivity and unique experience in whatever capacity they can. Having said that, there is a huge amount of potential in working with the more traditional, ‘old’ Chinese traveler too, so this should not be overlooked.”
“Our aim is to get as many people of different nationalities and cultures in front of each other and communicating so that people realize, language and passport aside, we are all just the same underneath.”
Perhaps with time and further education, China’s damaged tourist reputation will improve. When this happens, the world will most likely move onto criticizing other travelers. The possible takeaway message? Everybody hates a tourist.