Until the 1950’s international travel was limited to a select few. It wasn’t just the cost it was also the commitment. It took two days to get from Chicago to NY by train and then another 7 to get to England by ship. So you needed 18 spare days just to go and come back. People didn’t have that kind of free time. Not ones with jobs anyway. So international travel was rare. By the 1950’s that changed. Safe air travel made it possible to go across the continent in an afternoon. Businesses took advantage of multiple flight options to hold annual conventions in a single location thus ensuring that the entire company was on the same page. Families could see each other more often so kids no longer needed to stay in a small town to keep in touch. The world expanded and shrunk simultaneously. Companies sprang up to deal with the largess of travelers who were, for the most part, ignorant of the world around them. That led to a funny movie called If It’s Tuesday This Must be Belgium. It also led to the stereotype of the “ugly American.” We were a country fresh off of a victorious war, we had money and we had the best technology. What did little things like manners or couth count for anyway? Most of the world found us rash and annoying but they also found they liked taking our money. The whole affair could be summed up by what my late Aunt used to say; “We have buildings older than your country.”
Eventually, though, Americans learned some manners and the rest of the world leaned to tolerate us.
For the most part.
Now China faces the same problems we faced back in the 50’s. But they are compounded by their citizens facing the internet age. China’s version of the internet is severely truncated compared to the rest of the world’s so it’s not like they were prepared for this. Also, now is the first time in Chinese history there has been a middle class. As Li Hui and Ben Blanchard point out, it’s not surprising that things haven’t gone well initially.
From faking marriage certificates to get honeymoon discounts in the Maldives to letting children defecate on the floor of a Taiwan airport, Chinese tourists have recently found themselves at the center of controversy and anger.
Thanks to microblogging sites in China, accounts of tourists behaving badly spread like wildfire across the country, provoking disgust, ire and soul-searching.
While in the past such reports might have been dismissed as attacks on the good nature of Chinese travelers, people in the world’s second-largest economy are starting to ask why their countrymen and women are so badly behaved.
“Objectively speaking, our tourists have relatively low-civilized characters,” said Liu Simin, researcher with the Tourism Research Centre of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“Overseas travel is a new luxury, Chinese who can afford it compare with each other and want to show off,” Liu said. “Many Chinese tourists are just going abroad, and are often inexperienced and unfamiliar with overseas rules and norms.”
When a story broke recently that a 15-year-old Chinese boy had scratched his name into a 3,500-year-old temple in Egypt’s Luxor, the furor was such that questions were even asked about it at a Foreign Ministry news briefing.
“There are more and more Chinese tourists travelling to other countries in recent years,” ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Monday.
“We hope that this tourism will improve friendship with foreign countries and we also hope that Chinese tourists will abide by local laws and regulations and behave themselves.”
Other incidents have attracted similar anger, including that of a mother who let her children defecate on the floor of Kaohsiung airport in Taiwan, just meters (feet) from a toilet. She did put newspaper down first.
Embarrassment over the behavior of some Chinese tourists has reached the highest levels of government, which has tried to project an image of a benign and cultured emerging power whose growing wealth can only benefit the world.
This month, Vice Premier Wang Yang admonished the “uncivilized behavior” of certain Chinese tourists, in remarks widely reported by state media and reflecting concern about how the increasingly image-conscious country is seen overseas.
“They make a terrible racket in public places, scrawl their names on tourist sites, ignore red lights when crossing the road and spit everywhere. This damages our national image and has a terrible effect,” Wang said.
The central government has reissued guidelines on its main website on what it considers acceptable behavior for tourists, including dressing properly, queuing up and not shouting.
To be sure, the influx of newly wealthy Chinese travelling around world has bought economic benefits widely welcomed in many countries, and many tourists are well-behaved and respectful.
More than 83 million Chinese tourists travelled overseas last year, and Chinese expenditure on travel abroad reached $102 billion in 2012, the highest in the world according to the U.N. World Tourism Organization.
By 2020, about 200 million Chinese are expected to take an overseas holiday every year.
Criticism of bad behavior has in the past been leveled at American, Japanese and Taiwanese tourists, when they were also enjoying new wealth and going abroad for the first time.
Eventually, experts say, the criticism will fade.
“Travelling is a learning experience for tourists,” said Wang Wanfei, a tourism professor at Zhejiang University. “They learn how to absorb local culture in the process, and get rid of their bad tourist behavior.”
A friend of mine, who was born and raised in China, says the biggest thing to consider is that Chinese tourists are going to be importing some very alien cultural and social ideas when they return home. Even before the communists took over China was not exactly a hot bed of tourism so a working knowledge of the world around them is going to take a while to develop.
But they are trying.