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Destination: everywhere

Travel broadens the mind, or so the saying goes, which was just as well in the case of the 15 year-old boy from Nanjing who sparked astonishment five years ago by carving ‘Ding Jinhao was here’ on the walls of an ancient temple in Egypt.

Another tourist from China was so appalled by the graffiti that he posted a picture of it on social media (“the saddest moment during my stay in Egypt… I felt ashamed,” he lamented) and the boy suffered a fearful haranguing in the press, resulting in tearful apologies from him and his family.

Even China’s foreign ministry was stirred to comment, with words of warning about how the country’s tourists had to behave better on their holidays.

But the flip side to the criticism is that Egypt is desperate for the Chinese to visit. International visitor numbers have tumbled since the Arab Spring uprisings and a spate of terrorism attacks on tourist spots, with total arrivals falling from 14 million in 2010 to 5.2 million in 2016, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. The Egyptians are counting on the Chinese to help with the recovery and arrivals were up more than half last year, replacing some of the drop-off from other parts of the world.

It’s not just Egypt that wants to welcome the Chinese: visits from the Middle Kingdom are the Holy Grail for hundreds of holiday spots around the world. No nation can afford a tourism strategy that doesn’t cater to the Chinese, simply because they are powering so much of the industry’s wider growth.

The most recent report from the China Tourism Academy – a state-backed research institute – suggests that the Chinese made 130.5 million trips overseas in 2017, a 7% increase on the year before. Crucially they spend more than other nationalities too – about double the global average per capita – and there is the promise of the multiplier effect of new investment in areas like property or education in the countries Chinese visit.

That means that signage in Chinese characters is becoming more commonplace at holiday hotspots and that hotels and restaurants are redesigning their menus to appeal to the tastes of China’s travellers. The flood of new holidaymakers is also spurring hopes of a golden era for tourism, and underpinning huge investments in aircraft fleets and airport upgrades, cruise ship lines and ski lodges, hotel chains and beach resorts.

WiC’s latest Focus edition conducts a whistle-stop tour of the types of new tourist that are emerging and the kind of places they want to visit. And because the interest in travel is evolving so quickly, we ask how destinations are attracting Chinese visitors, particularly as trends change from group-based tours to more individually-focused holidays.

China tourism: a bit of history

Vacations didn’t get a mention under Mao Zedong (who only ever visited the Soviet Union) and leisure travel was classed as wasteful by the Chinese political class for almost half a century. The miniscule number of overseas trips was restricted to a lucky few on business, international study or visits to relatives. Even when the country started to open up to the wider world in the 1980s, most of the outreach went into attracting investment from overseas, not sending Chinese nationals abroad.

More Chinese were able to afford overseas visits as the economy strengthened, although directives demanded that travel expenses were paid by the hosts to stem outflows of foreign currency. Yet there were signs that interest in travel was growing – especially given the success of newer theme parks boasting replicas of the world’s attractions – and restrictions on travel were loosened further in the 1990s, allowing people to venture abroad in greater numbers.

Time was the other issue. By 1995 the five-day work week became the norm as the authorities became more relaxed about leisure time. Four years later the government introduced three “Golden Weeks” into the working calendar – bundling together seven days of national holidays in each. That made travel abroad into more of an option but there was a catch: visas were only available for tours led by government-approved operators, who made sure customers came home by demanding cash bonds that were refunded when they returned.

The policy was important as it steered the first generation of tourists into holidaying on group tours. Asian destinations with the largest populations of ethnic Chinese were the first beneficiaries, although access widened in the late 1990s to countries like South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. More destinations were opened up to the tour operators as the years progressed, including most of the countries in the European Union in 2003 and 2004, and the United States and Canada in 2008.

Xi Jinping, tour-guide-in-chief

Cross-border flows have now accelerated to the point at which China has been the number one source of international tourists for the last five years and there is a strong sense that the Chinese are following the flag overseas, not only in tour groups but also as a matter of national policy.

At home, tourism and travel is part of the push to refocus parts of China’s economy towards the services sector and consumer spending. Tourism has also been classed as one of five ‘happiness industries’, tasked with improving the nation’s sense of wellbeing.

Another of the plusses for the industry is that it hasn’t fallen foul of the central government’s campaign against graft and extravagant spending in the same way as some other sectors of the economy. Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, has also talked about tourism as a bridge between civilisations and cultures, and policymakers see it as part of a much-vaunted plan to promote China’s ‘soft power’ through the reach of its new generation of consumers.

Xi has been setting the tone personally during his foreign trips and Chinese tourists have followed in their tens of thousands to the places he visits.

In one example, the gifting of a teddy bear from a lavender farm during a tour of the Australian state of Tasmania spurred a surge of new arrivals. In another, photos of the president downing a pint at a British pub triggered another influx of thirsty tourists (and the hostelry was later sold to Chinese investors).

Holiday hype like this has deepened the sense that China’s tourists are looking for new experiences that go beyond the concentrated bouts of shopping and sightseeing that shaped the first wave of international travel. Motivations for vacations are certainly getting more varied. More than 800,000 Chinese went on study tours to schools and universities abroad last summer, with British and American universities at the front of the queue as destinations, according to Ctrip, China’s leading online travel agency. Thousands of Chinese have also been choosing to get married in exotic locations like Bali and Phuket, while back in Britain wedding photo shoots are booming as brides pose for pictures in quaint Cotswold villages or at landmarks like Big Ben and Tower Bridge.

The madness of crowds

A key concern for some of the best-known destinations is that demand for holidays from Chinese could turn out to be too much of a good thing.

Many of China’s domestic attractions have already been swamped by visitors – especially during the Golden Week holidays – and there is a danger that the congestion spreads as millions more people make international journeys. The surge in arrivals has already led to tensions in some commercial districts of Hong Kong, while shopping streets in Japan have struggled to cope with bakugai (a Japanese term meaning “explosion shopping”) buying from the tourist hordes.

Another of the challenges for hosts is that the homogenous habits of many of the tourists can have a disruptive impact on the local marketplace, whether it’s driving up the prices of baby formula in Hong Kong and Australia or emptying the shelves of cosmetics in Japan and South Korea.

As a means of self-preservation, destinations like Venice and Barcelona have introduced ‘dispersal’ strategies to spread the burden of visitors across a wider range of attractions, and the risks of over-tourism seem real in countries such as Indonesia, which expects to attract as many as 10 million Chinese by 2020, according to its national tourism board.

How hotspots like Bali will cope with the influx is open to question, although the Indonesians are championing a plan to spend $20 billion on 10 new destinations to divert many of the new arrivals. The Chinese themselves are expected to be the biggest investors in the plan, putting in capital under the banner of Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure programme.

Tourism bosses aren’t going to turn away the Chinese, especially when they are expected to form the basis of long-term demand. In places like Europe there is also the benefit of counter-seasonality, because many Chinese travel over holiday periods in February, May and October when many other nationalities are working.

Marketing a wider range of attractions is going to be crucial, however, as the arrivals won’t want to spend their time fighting through crowds of their countrymen. But national tourism boards see positives in the new numbers, arguing that the prospect of millions more arrivals gives huge incentive to their industry to develop new products and services. “It may sound strange given their number,” Eduardo Santander, executive director at the European Travel Commission, told Hong Kong media last year of the new demand from China, “but we believe they can help make the industry more sustainable.”

Behaving on the beach

Aside from the sheer volume of visitors from China, another concern is their conduct, following a string of stories about poor behaviour overseas.

There are headlines in the news almost every month, such as the elderly lady who chucked coins into the jet engines of her plane for good luck or the sakura fans that have alarmed nature lovers in Japan by congregating for photos in the boughs of the cherry blossom trees.

There was more anger in London last summer when a busload of visitors stopped for selfies at the blackened Grenfell Tower, shortly after a fire had killed more than 80 people. Challenged by locals, the tour guide tried to claim that his group were health and safety experts, and there was more cross-cultural consternation in Berlin when two tourists were detained for making Hitler salutes in photos outside the Reichstag. Neither had any idea that they were committing a criminal offence.

There’s more than a hint of snobbery in the media coverage of some of the transgressions and visitors from other countries haven’t always set the highest standards – as stereotypes of boorish Brits, surly Russians and brash Americans suggest. Nonetheless, the behaviour has been enough of a problem to perturb the Chinese government, which has put the worst offenders on blacklists, banning them from further trips overseas. The China National Tourism Administration, a government agency, also publishes regular guides on acceptable conduct, and the state-owned newspapers put out reminders to readers to behave themselves on their international trips.

Even Xi Jinping has issued a few instructions, including words of advice during a visit to the Maldives four years ago. “Don’t throw empty bottles everywhere. Don’t damage their coral reef. Eat less instant noodles. Eat more local seafood,” he warned, half-jokingly.

Yet it would be foolish for destinations to take China’s tourists for granted and the Chinese media keeps a close watch for poor treatment of its brethren, with warnings that the nation’s holidaymakers can always take their business elsewhere.

A series of muggings in Paris made headlines last year, for instance, and the Chinese embassy in the French capital warned its nationals to be vigilant about “large-scale violent robberies” after an incident in which 40 tourists were tear-gassed in a car park near Orly airport. “We urge French police to crack this case as soon as they can and bring the criminals to justice, and take even more effective measures to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens in France,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman demanded.

In another case consular officials in Copenhagen issued warnings that bogus policemen were targeting Chinese nationals by demanding to see their wallets and travel documents, and then stealing their cash. Elsewhere, the country’s tourists are getting wiser to acts of exploitation, it seems, including the case of a beach shack in Japan’s Okinawa prefecture that was revealed to be charging the Chinese skyhigh prices for sun shades. “Chinese tourists have terrible manners,” the store’s owner argued in justification of the pricing premium. “I have tolerated them for years but as I don’t want to rent to them now I decided to charge them 10 times as much.” The man backed down once the discrimination was reported in China and he was savaged in an online campaign by netizens. Local tourism bosses also got involved, worried that the story would deter new visitors. In this case at least, the power of the Chinese tourist prevailed.


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