How to create good Chinese tourists

December 30, 2014 by Brendan O'Reilly

The dramatic increase in outbound tourism provides a tangible illustration of the ascent of China’s middle class. Tens of millions of Chinese are now travelling abroad every year, creating unprecedented economic opportunities around the world. However, the behaviour of some of these travellers has been somewhat less than harmonious. As the Chinese government seeks to translate economic might in to soft power, concerted efforts are now being made to improve the conduct of the ever-growing multitudes of Chinese tourists.

The raw figures of China’s expanding outbound tourism are quite impressive. According to statistics from the China National Tourism Administration,  there were over 98m individual trips by Mainland Chinese to another destination in 2013, an increase of 18% from the 2012 figures. Meanwhile, the United Nations World Tourism Organization reports China overtook Germany as the largest international tourism market in 2012, with Chinese spending over $102bn on trips abroad.

Of course, it should be noted that most of these travellers (and the money they spend) end up in territories claimed by Beijing. Over 65m of the “overseas” trips made by Mainland tourists in 2013 were to Hong Kong and Macau. Taiwan also receives nearly three million visitors from the Peoples’ Republic every year. The vast majority of Chinese travellers go to neighbouring countries or territories. In fact, the United States of America is the only destination within the top ten that is not in Asia.

Many businesses and governments are now actively courting China’s rapidly growing tourism market. The United States and China just recently signed a reciprocal agreement to issue ten-year tourist visas. The White House says Chinese tourist spending in the US will jump from $21bn in 2013 to $85bn by 2021. According to Roger Dow of the US Travel Association, Chinese tourists in the United States spend an average of $7,200 per trip, compared to $4,500 for all overseas visitors.

Despite these incredibly tempting figures, Chinese tourists have garnered something of a bad reputation abroad. Over the last year both Chinese and international media have highlighted several such incidents. In 2013 a 15-year Chinese visitor scrawled, “Ding Jinhao was here” into rock carvings at the 3,500-year-old Luxor Temple in Egypt, provoking widespread outrage in Chinese social media.

Just a few weeks ago a plane had to return to Bangkok after two Chinese passengers threw boiling water at a flight attendant and threatened to “blow up the plane” because of anger over seating arrangements and service charges. Even more recently, a passenger on a domestic flight opened an emergency exit to get some “fresh air” before takeoff.

These incidents have elicited an interesting range of reactions within China. One article in Xinhua quoted an Egyptian tour guide, who pointed out that graffiti written in English, Korean, Russian, and other languages can also be found at Luxor. Meanwhile, comments on social media have been largely critical of the behaviour of some of the Chinese tourists. There are widespread concerns in China that the people’s quality has not improved to match the incredible gains in economic development.

One Weibo user said the Ding Jinhao fiasco reflected negatively on the entire country: “Why is it that only Chinese tourists do this sort of thing? We need to rethink how we educate our people”. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei even weighed in on the matter, calling on Chinese tourists to respect the local laws of their travel destinations, and calling for tourists to “have civilized manners”.

Professor Liping Cai, Director of the Purdue Tourism and Hospitality Research Center, sees a Chinese focus on market transactions as leading to some of the problems associated with Chinese tourism: “Tourism is an economic activity, which the Chinese tourists take very seriously. Equipped with the newly-founded personal spending power and backed by the rising (need for) the national pride, Chinese consumers in the global travel marketplace carry a mission of a seemingly price-insensitive buyer and expect an eager seller out of everywhere they visit. Since it is a marketplace, they assume a clean, simple buyer-seller transactional exchange of money for goods.”

Many are oblivious of the fact that the economic activity of tourism takes place in a market of more than just buyer and seller. It happens in the social exchange of feelings and emotions among many parties who are not directly impacted by the economic transactions. The feelings and emotions (e.g., respect, empathy) are not for sale, no matter how much a buyer offers.

The Chinese government is stepping in directly to improve the behaviour of Chinese tourists. In September, the China National Tourism Administration published a 64-page illustrated guidebook outlining tourist behaviour. It admonished tourists to behave in a hygienic manner, to use niceties such as “good morning” and “sorry”, and to refrain from forcing others to join in group photographs. State broadcaster China Central Television has been airing a series of commercials showing pandas behaving poorly overseas, and called on Chinese tourists to “be good pandas.”

Professor Cai sees a relationship between government efforts to improve Chinese tourism stemming and Beijing’s quest for “soft power”: “They [officials in the Chinese government] do have one aspiration in common, that is, to globally project a positive image of China and the Chinese people. Hence a significant investment in image building as part of developing China’s soft power. As the result of increasing reports of unconventional behaviours exhibited by the Chinese tourists and exaggerated by the media, the reputation of the Chinese tourists are offsetting the efforts by the government. They might be perceived as slaps on the face, which is so proudly important in the Chinese culture and even more so collectively as the government tries to nurture national pride.”

There is evidence that outbound Chinese tourism is maturing and diversifying. Not all Chinese tourists are travelling in tour groups and spending their time abroad shopping for high-end luxury goods. Three million of the four million Mainland visitors to Thailand in 2013 travelled independently. Increasing numbers of Chinese – especially those born in the 1980s and ‘90s – are joining the beibaozu, or “Backpack Tribe” of travellers who live simply and seek genuine experiences with locals.

As Professor Christopher Ryan of the Waikato Management School in New Zealand tells China Outlook: “The market has significantly changed even within the last three years in New Zealand. We are seeing more young Chinese increasingly being akin to western counterparts. Wanaka Skydiving report the Chinese are their second largest market. Black Water Rafting are reporting exponential growth, albeit from a very low base three years ago.”

Professor Cai believes that the trend of increasing Chinese tourism abroad will continue, and that it can be better managed as the market matures: “The world must reckon with the fact that the Chinese tourists are coming and here to stay in greater and greater numbers. However, community and business leaders of specific destinations must decide if they and their stakeholders are ready, in hospitality as well as in infrastructure, for welcoming the Chinese tourists, and how much and how soon they wish to receive the tourism flow. While the initial waves of the Chinese tourists share some similar characteristics, they are not homogeneous as they look. As the market grows in maturity, distinct segments start to emerge. Segmentation strategies can be applied to selectively attract the Chinese customers through different communication strategies. Fundamentally, the destinations should treat the Chinese tourists as any emerging market, playing the hosts to the long-lost cousins whom it takes time to understand and appreciate.”

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