China may offer carmakers their biggest market, but many of the nation’s drivers are inexperienced and roundly ignore traffic codes. And with millions of Chinese travelling abroad during this Lunar New Year holiday, that has meant China’s dangerous drivers have taken to roads further afield too.
Take Queenstown, a popular destination in New Zealand. This week, a local court charged tourists from China with traffic violations that endangered safety. First, there was a 29 year-old from Chongqing who was charged with repeatedly steering his car into oncoming traffic and trying to overtake on blind corners. He also clocked up a top speed of 134km per hour as well as failing to pull over when police flashed their lights at him. According to the Teranaki Daily News, the man said he thought he could overtake whenever he liked (that would seem to be the practice in many Chinese cities) and claimed not to know that flashing police lights meant he should stop.
Another Chinese driver sojourning in Queenstown was even more dangerous. She crashed head-on into another car. The two passengers in the wrecked vehicle were so seriously injured they had to be airlifted to hospital. Among its punishments, the court ordered the guilty motorist – a Chinese government official – never to drive in New Zealand again.
Yet despite such instances of reckless behaviour on the roads, countries are stepping up a gear to court tourists from China. HSBC recently released a report discussing some of the major tourism trends that have emerged in this respect over the last few years. And while it notes that Hong Kong and Macau remain the most popular destinations for mainland tourists, the two cities now face serious competition from other parts of Asia.
So where are the Chinese going?
Since 2008, more than 60% of the overseas trips by mainland Chinese were to Hong Kong and Macau. But over the past two years, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have been gaining in popularity with travellers. While most mainland tourists are familiar with Hong Kong’s famous shopping district Tsim Sha Tsui (known locally as ‘TST’), HSBC reckons that a new TST is emerging in tourism terms: the cities of Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei.
One of the draws for Chinese tourists going to Japan is the depreciation of the yen, which renders visits more affordable. Indeed, despite frosty relations between Beijing and Tokyo (owing, among other things, to a dispute over sovereignty of islands in the East China Sea), the Japan Tourism Agency estimates that Chinese visitors are the biggest spenders among foreign tourists.
Taiwan, meanwhile, has also been chasing tourism money from the mainland. A ban on solo Chinese travellers was lifted in June 2011, and entry quotas have been increased. The maximum number of individual travellers that can visit has reached 4,000 and Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has announced that it is mulling increasing that figure to 5,000.
Tourism operators are doing well out of Chinese visits to Seoul too, including Jin Jiang Group, one of China’s largest hotel operators, which opened a hotel in the city last year that caters specifically to Chinese tourists. Workers at the hotel are clad in traditional Chinese costumes, signs are in Mandarin, and breakfast is congee (rice porridge), boiled eggs and dumplings.
The strategy seems to work: more than 90% of guests at the hotel are Chinese, says Chosun llbo.
In fact South Korea ranks as the third most popular destination for Chinese visitors, behind Hong Kong and Macau. Many tourists are attracted by South Korea’s shopping and pop culture. Others come for Seoul’s plastic surgery clinics. More than 25,400 Chinese turned up for cosmetic treatment in 2013, for instance, an increase of 70% from the previous year.
Each patient spent an average of $3,150, says Japan Times.
Indeed, such is the popularity of cosmetic treatment in Korea that the authorities have started to clamp down on a thriving black market in unregistered facilities. “Some clinics are treating Chinese patients without a state licence that allows them to treat foreign patients, because obviously that’s where the money is,” Cho Soo-Young, spokesman for a Korean association of plastic surgeons, told AFP.
Shopping… the favourite pastime?
For Chinese tourists, visiting the local sites can be appealing. But generally shopping comes first. HSBC calculates that in 2013, 58% of Chinese tourist spending overseas was dedicated to shopping (compared with 18% spent on accommodation and 11% on local transportation).
Visitors from China love to shop in Japan, for instance. In Ginza, the famous Tokyo shopping district, luxury boutiques and duty-free managers are trying to adapt to Chinese consumers. Mitsuko, which has hired more Chinese-speaking staff than any other Tokyo retailer, says Chinese duty-free sales at its Ginza outlet have almost doubled compared to last year. Likewise, Laox, an operator of a major electronics and duty-free goods chain, will open a new store in Tokyo in June catering to visitors from China.
Chinese tourists aren’t just snapping up high-end garments or luxury items. There is also a widespread belief that household appliances made and sold in Japan are vastly superior to those they can buy at home. One very popular item is rice-cookers. Others are a little more surprising. Wu Xiaobo, an influential business writer in China, says Chinese visitors are purchasing plenty of toilet seats too. The Japan-made items are not cheap at $400 each, but affluent Chinese like the high-tech functions (the seats are heated and self-sterilise after usage). Stock soon sells out whenever a group of Chinese tourists drops by, a salesperson at a duty free shop in Okinawa told Wu.
Not always welcome…
The international media frequently reports bad behaviour by Chinese tourists, denting their reputation worldwide. In December, a video went viral of a passenger on a flight from Bangkok to Nanjing scalding a flight attendant with hot water and threatening to blow up the plane. Just days before, another flight was nearly forced to return to its point of origin after a brawl broke out between four women on a flight from the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong over a noisy baby.
The Wall Street Journal reported too this week that locals on South Korea’s Jeju are unenthused by the increasing number of Chinese (as tourists they have visa-free access for up to 30 days, and make up 75% of arrivals). The island is getting an economic boost but as the newspaper points out, the tourists are “also generating tension among locals, as well as resentment. Locals say scuffles occasionally break out between Koreans and Chinese visitors in shops and bars”.
Another Jeju native told the New York Times: “Planeload after planeload of them arrive. I sometimes wonder whether this island is turning into a Chinese colony.”
But the negative sentiment about mainland tourists is most deeply felt in Hong Kong. Before the Lunar New Year holiday, about 200 protesters gathered in Sha Tin, a neighbourhood near the border, demanding that “mainlanders go back to the mainland”. Resentful residents refer to mainland shoppers as “locusts” because they strip shelves of goods and clog up public transport (see WiC271).
Last week, one fruit vendor in the Yuen Long district made headlines by erecting signs at his stall reading: “We don’t sell to mainland people.” He explained that he was fed up with the visitors from north of the border. “99.9% of mainland people like to poke the fruits whether they’re buying or not. And they accuse me of duping them… They’re such a nuisance,” he told the Hong Kong Economic Journal.
In many ways, Hong Kong is a victim of its own success. Last year there were nearly 50 million arrivals from across the border, a massive number to handle for a territory with a population of just over 7 million.
Last week Hong Kong’s chief executive CY Leung was said to be discussing proposals to tighten the rules for individual travellers coming to the city, according to reports in Xinhua. The Global Times thought that such discussions were “understandable” but warned against “politicising” the issue. “It is necessary to put in place some control measures… however, it should not give mainlanders the impression that Hong Kong does not welcome them,” it added, rather hopefully.
But the undercurrent of resentment against mainland tourists may be starting to cost Hong Kong economically. This week the South China Morning Post reported that the number of Chinese visitors to the former UK colony over the Lunar New Year holiday fell for the first time in nearly 20 years. One tourist told the newspaper: “I used to travel to Hong Kong every year. But I have no plans for that this year. I prefer Japan to Hong Kong now. In Japan, the food is fine, the people are nice and the yen is cheap. In Hong Kong… the city is very chaotic and the people there are so mean.” Another problem for Hong Kong is that a growing share of its Chinese visitors are day-trippers, spending much less per head than overnight tourists. Longer-staying and wealthier tourists are increasingly looking to “edgier” destinations like Seoul and Tokyo, HSBC says.
One upshot is that rents for shops in the most touristy parts of the city may have peaked. “The days of ‘trophy retail’ locations are probably over,” says HSBC, reckoning that fewer brands will see the value of opening flagship venues in Hong Kong to introduce themselves to Chinese visitors. (A good example of this strategy: the American fashion label Abercrombie & Fitch, which paid a huge rent to take over a prime site previously occupied by Shanghai Tang three years ago).
Not the worst offenders?
The People’s Daily has been trying to point out that other nationalities behave badly overseas too, showcasing the American sisters arrested for taking nude photographs at Angkor Wat in Cambodia in February. It also mentions instances of poor conduct by foreign nationals in China, like camping atop the Great Wall and taking dips in lakes despite signs banning swimming.
As a defence, it all sounds a little feeble. Yet it’s hard not to have a little sympathy. Every country produces troublesome tourists. But the law of large numbers means that more cases of bad behaviour are likely to emerge as more Chinese start to travel abroad. This poses a quandary for those countries seeking to benefit from all the tourism spending. One Japanese perhaps put it best when he told the Washington Post: “It’s 50/50, give and take. We appreciate them coming, but we wish that they would come with a little more cultural awareness.”
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