Chinese tourists spend, and offend, freely

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Chinese tourists spend, and offend, freely

Chinese tourists shop along Boulevard Haussmann in Paris.

Tokyo:  The Ugly Americans terrorized Europeans and Asians with their booming voices and tennis shoes in the years after World War II. Decades later, Japanese tour groups descended from their air-conditioned buses to flash peace signs as they shot photos of every known landmark as well as laundry on backyard clotheslines.

Now it is China's turn to face the brunt of criticism.

The complaints are familiar - they gawk, they shove, they eschew local cuisine, and last year, 83 million mainland Chinese spent $102 billion abroad - overtaking Americans and Germans - making them the world's biggest tourism spenders, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Their numbers have also placed them among the most resented tourists. Mainland Chinese tourists, often laden with cash and unfamiliar with foreign ways, are tumbling out of tour buses with apparently little appetite for hotel breakfast buffets and no concept of lining up.

The frustrations with the new tourists were summed up on a Thai online message board last spring, when users posted complaints about Chinese tourists using outdoor voices inside and spitting in public, among other transgressions. Last year, Thierry Gillier, a French fashion designer who founded the Zadig and Voltaire label, caused a small scandal when he told Women's Wear Daily that Chinese tourists would not be welcome at his new Parisian boutique hotel. A barrage of international criticism persuaded him to apologize.

Like their predecessors, the Chinese are newly wealthy and helpless with foreign languages, a combination complicated by their developing country's historical isolation.

"That China is a lawless, poorly educated society with a lot of money is going to take its toll on the whole world," said Hung Huang, a popular blogger and magazine publisher in Beijing.

Despite these faux pas, countries are practically tripping over themselves to attract Chinese tourists. Wedding companies in South Korea are trying to lure Chinese couples with bling-heavy ceremonies inspired by the viral music video "Gangnam Style." A coastal county outside Sydney, Australia, is building a $450 million Chinese theme park centred on a full-size replica of the gates to the Forbidden City and a nine-story Buddhist temple. France, one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists already - 1.4 million visited in 2012 - is working to further bolster its appeal.

Parisian officials recently published a manual for the service industry that offers transliterated Mandarin phrases and cultural tips for better understanding Chinese desires, including this tidbit: "They are very picky about gastronomy and wine."

To judge from the grumbling across the globe, such guidelines may be necessary. But the greatest opprobrium seems to be coming from fellow Chinese. In May, a mainland Chinese tourist in Luxor, Egypt, discovered that a compatriot had carved his own hieroglyphics on the wall of a 3,500-year-old temple. "Ding Jinhao was here," it declared. A photo of the offending scrawl spread rapidly on Chinese social media, and outraged citizens tracked down the 15-year-old vandal. The uproar subsided after his parents issued a public apology.

Embarrassed by the spate of bad press that month, Wang Yang, China's vice premier, publicly railed against the poor "quality and breeding" of Chinese tourists who tarnish their homeland's reputation. "They make loud noises in public, scratch graffiti on tourist attractions, ignore red lights when crossing the road and spit everywhere," he said, according to People's Daily.

Despite his admonition, articles with headlines like "Chinese Bride Brawls in French Lavender Field" continue to appear in the state media.

Hung, the blogger, blames the Communist Party's tumultuous rule for China's uncivilized behavior abroad. "There's an entire generation who learned you don't pay attention to grooming or manners because that's considered bourgeois," she said. While Chinese are more open to Western ideas now, that has not necessarily sunk in when actually interacting with the outside world. "They think, 'The hell with etiquette. As long as I have money, foreigners will bow to my cash.'"

Most mainland Chinese vacationers have a splendid time abroad. In May, Huang Honglin, 53, and his wife paid $8,000 for a 16-day group tour of the United States, a country he last visited on a business trip 25 years ago. That was long before he joined China's growing middle class as the owner of a trading company.

This time around, Huang had money to burn.

"We went shopping for gems in Hawaii and bought Prada bags in New York," he recalled. Huang never made it to the chic boutiques of Manhattan. Instead, he travelled an hour north to the Woodbury Common Premium Outlets, where many designer stores have recently hired employees who speak Chinese.

His only complaint was that they had to race through the racks before the bus departed. "Time was so short, it felt like war," he said.

According to a McKinsey & Co. report, nearly 70 per cent of Chinese luxury consumers buy their Tiffany baubles and Hermes scarves abroad to avoid higher sales tax on such goods at home, which can reach 60 per cent. Take the black Louis Vuitton "Neverfull" handbag, a hefty status symbol with straps that costs 14,400 renminbi in China, or $2,335 - over $350 more than the same item in the United States.

In 2007, China granted the United States "approved destination status," which opened the doors to Chinese group leisure travel to the U.S. beginning in 2008. Last year, 1.5 million Chinese arrived on American shores, spending nearly $8.8 billion, according to the Commerce Department. Today, around 150 travel agencies in the United States have the approval of the National Tour Association, an American trade group, to organize trips from China, many of them owned and operated by Chinese-Americans.

But the industry has experienced growing pains. Despite years of meetings in China and decades of leading motor coach tours across the United States, the travel agency AmericanTours International learned that Chinese tourists required a special touch. For one, people from Beijing and Shanghai cannot travel on the same bus.

"They clashed," recalled Nick Hentschel, the company's director of business development.

Last year, 1,500 Chinese took the company's "Hollywood to Broadway" bus tour, a 20-day cross-country journey intended for mainlanders with stops that included a Las Vegas casino; the bridges of Madison County, Iowa; Niagara Falls; the White House; and the Empire State Building.

If the sights are crowd-pleasers, the overnight stays can sometimes prove challenging. "Smoking in hotel rooms is always a problem," Hentschel said, a habit that can cost tourists hundreds of dollars in hotel cleaning bills. Then there was the episode last summer, he said, when a tour group caused a scene at a hotel in Cody, Wyo., after mistakenly thinking another busload of compatriots had been given preference at breakfast. The police were called to escort them out of town, he said.

More often, Chinese tourists find themselves victims of unscrupulous tour operators. On a weeklong guided tour through Thailand in 2009, Qi Lingfeng, 27, was one of several people in his group who refused to sign up for costly excursions like speedboat rides and concerts. As punishment, he said, the local guide locked them out of their hotel rooms. Other tourists at the same hotel, he said, were forced off their bus for the same transgression.

"It was so crazy, we even thought about calling the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok," he said.

During a group tour of the Siberian city of Vladivostok in January, Chen Xu, 47, a scientist from the coastal city of Xiamen, said the "ethnic Russian dancing" excursion, which cost $80, turned out to be a woman in a bikini twirling around a stripper pole.

"When the parents saw what was happening, they took their kids and left the room," he said.

Surrounded by so many foreign stimuli, many yearn for a taste of home while abroad. Xie Nuoyan, 20, a college student from Beijing, felt as much during a recent visit to New York. While she appreciated the drinkable tap water, she said Chinatown was a letdown.

"I was really disappointed to see it's not like in the movies, where there are lots of lanterns and performances everywhere," she said.

On the upside, finding an abundance of Chinese food after days of consuming only strange Western concoctions redeemed the neighborhood.

"The sight of rice moved me to tears," she said.

© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: September 18, 2013 13:21 IST

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