The Rise of the Chinese Tourist

Last week, I did what many of us teachers in South Korea do in the vacation and took a trip to Thailand to break-up the long cold of Korean winter. I wont bore everyone with the details of my holiday but one thing struck me right away upon touching down in Bangkok and that was the remarkable hordes of Chinese tourists.

In a place famously renown for Western holiday-makers sometimes for slightly dodgy reasons it did seem as though, most of the time, the Westerners were out-numbered at least 3 to 1 by the Chinese. Koreans could also be spotted in quite large numbers with a sprinkling of Japanese people.  Remembering back a couple of summers ago, during a tour through Europe, the Asians were out in force there as well. Then I was surprised to find Koreans almost equally as numerous as the Chinese and again only a few Japanese.

This would seem to be a sign of the times and a symptom of how wealth is starting to change hands in the 21st century.  In 2012 an estimated 78 million Chinese tourists went abroad for travel.  This figure is up about 20 million from just two years earlier and if we go back a little further, to 2001, the number of Chinese tourists to foreign destinations was just 12 million.  With this in mind, I would be very surprised if it was just me who is noticing a difference when travelling.

The change is reflected in the services provided in tourist destinations.  In Europe, I was amazed by the number of facilities specifically for Asian tourists; Chinese and Korean restaurants and shops were more numerous than I remembered and the stockpiles of Korean Shin Ramen at the Jungfraujoch (Europe’s highest railway station in the Swiss Alps) was truly remarkable.  Signs in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese and speakers of these languages were also more prevalent wherever I went.  Even the famously language-shy English were getting in on it, as I was shocked to find an official at the London Eye showing off a bit of knowledge of the Korean language to my wife.


What Does This Mean For The Rest of Us?


They talked loudly and coarsely and laughed boisterously when all others were so quiet and well behaved.


The above quote might ring true for some of us that have traveled recently and had to share some time with tourists from China.  In my opinion, the average Chinese tourists manners do seem a tad infuriating; they can be noisy, pushy, and completely unaware of what is going on when it comes to people outside their own group.  However, before I become too judgmental I must confess that the above quote is not referring to Chinese tourists but to American tourists to Europe back in 1867, as described by Mark Twain.  Americans were seen as new money back then, who did not have the class and refinery of the Europeans.  These complaints of Europeans about American tourists were still quite relevant right up until the 1950s and 60s (some might even say that it is still relevant but as a Brit I must also confess that our reputation, especially in Europe, is not much better).  This is much the same as the Chinese are seen now compared with much of the Western world when they are on their travels.

It does seem like many of us are increasingly going to have to put up with the shoving, the inappropriate levels of noise, the attempted queue jumping, spitting, and that blissfully unaware Chinese person wondering into our perfect camera shot (these are all things that I noticed with unerring regularity on my recent vacation to Thailand).  I remember one instance where, at an all lady-boy cabaret show, my wife and most of the Western crowd gasped in amazement, not at the show, but of the throngs of Chinese impatiently getting up early – blocking everyones view and treading on peoples feet in the process – right in the middle of the finale when everyone else was keen on taking pictures and enjoying the finish to the show.

Of course, as many of the readers here will know and have experienced, the Far East has very different customs and manners and many of us that have lived in the Far East will probably have lost count of how many times we have committed a cultural faux pas or two of our own, so maybe we should show some patience with the Chinese.  The only thing is though, I cant help but recognise the general differences between tourists coming from Far East Asia.  With the exception of the Taiwanese, I find it pretty easy to distinguish between the people from the different countries down to language and appearance.  Chinese, South Koreans, and Japanese have an easily distinguishable twang in their languages and quite a specific look, in physical appearance and fashion.  But I found that I could also tell them apart by their manners.  In this regard, the Japanese appear somewhat ahead of their land-locked counterparts in China and Korea, with the Koreans slightly better than the Chinese who were the main culprits of most of those little annoyances I experienced in Europe and in Thailand.  This is not news to the Chinese themselves, and especially the government, who started a campaign back in 2006 to inform travelers to other countries of their responsibility to watch their manners to improve the image of China and to promote themselves as a great civilisation past and present.  Nowadays, most Chinese tourist guides will tactfully insert tips on cultural etiquette during their tours, although it rarely seemed to pay dividends in my experience.

What often doesn’t help matters is that the Chinese tend to travel in large groups on scheduled tours with only a short period of time to visit certain famous landmarks.  If you happen to be visiting that place at the same time (which seems likely with the amount of Chinese tourists these days) then you might find that you are in the middle of a stampede as they rush to see what they need to and then get back on the bus.  Approximately 80% of Chinese travelers go in groups where tour companies can book cheap tickets in bulk because of high demand and can bargain for hotels to get the best prices.  For an excellent account of what it is like on one of these tours, have a look at this New Yorker article of a Chinese-speaking journalist who joined in on a Classic European Chinese tour.  In this account it is pretty clear that these tours can be very stressful as quite a lot of time is spent on buses and very little time spent at each destination with the clear aim of seeing as many places as they can and taking lots of pictures.  Because of this, there is an emerging trend of young Chinese with some English ability going abroad in smaller groups with friends, as a couple, or even solo and I saw some evidence of this, especially on my recent trip to Thailand.

How To Avoid The Crowds Of Chinese

If you just cant deal with the Chinese on vacation, whether it be because of their manners or simply their large numbers, they can be fairly easy to avoid, although you may have to miss out on some of the most iconic of destinations and sights.  At the moment at least, the Chinese appear to be mainly heading for the most obvious places.  Now, if you were planning on feeling fairly alone and uncrowded at the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum, then you are kidding yourself now and in the past also, even before the rise of the Chinese tourist, but things these days are becoming even worse.  But because the Chinese are mainly heading to these kinds of places, getting a bit more imaginative with your travel destinations will give you the freedom that you may be looking for (personally, this has always been the best way whether the Chinese are involved or not).  After visiting Bangkok, I took a trip to a slightly lesser known island called Koh Chang, where I did not see a Chinese face, or indeed any other Far East Asian face other than my wife’s, although I was told that tourists from the Far East did visit the island quite often, but not in such large groups.  This is the most important factor as even a large group with perfect manners is still likely to bother others simply because of its size.

I suppose you could argue that there is probably an awareness in the Asian tourist community of places around the world where not to travel because of drunken licentious Westerners, like some of the party islands of South East Asia.  Maybe they are trying to avoid this class of Western tourist as much as, if not more than, I want to try and avoid the large groups of Chinese when I’m on holiday.  There are a heck of a lot of Chinese though, and whether we like it or not, the trend of increasing amounts of Chinese travelers is set to continue and with such a large population they could be set to dominate and over-crowd most of the famous tourist destinations of the world (if they are not doing so already).  The world is changing fast and the rise of the Chinese is never more apparent than when we travel.  I am not sure that I am liking the change all that much at the moment, so maybe it is time to find the road less traveled for a less stressful vacation in the future.