“United Airlines have many precedents of bullying Chinese passengers.”
So reads a photo slug contained within a recent People’s Daily report on how “UA refuses to apologize after insulting passengers.” It’s part of the newspaper’s “The Dishonest Americans Series”—a title since removed—that is easily dismissed as just another of China state-run media’s hatchet jobs targeted at foreign brands. (See, esp., Apple.) The piece ends without mincing any words: “Chinese passengers may choose not to consider UA. This probably is the best solution.”
But the report—about United Airlines’ culture of discriminating against Chinese passengers—hints at a deeper growing confrontation as China becomes the largest and most profitable tourist market in the world.[more]
It used to be taught as historical fact that after legendary admiral Zheng He sailed the globe in the early 15th century, the Ming Dynasty destroyed his advanced ships and closed the shipyards as a sign of disinterest in what the world outside China had to offer. The historical note went on to inform decades of thought about how it was just part of China’s cultural DNA to not want anything to do with the rest of the world. The Great Wall as metaphor didn’t help matters.
And while this historical theory has since been largely discredited, new stats on global travel can more or less put the final nails in its coffin. In the last dozen years, the number of China’s international outbound trips has gone from around 10 million in 2000 to over 83 million last year. And it’s not just quantity. Chinese are now the biggest tourist group, dropping, as a whole, $102 billion overseas in 2012, almost $20 billion more than the next closest group, Germans. In California, for example, a Chinese tourist averages $2,932 of spending while all other foreign groups average just $1,883.
However, the Chinese are beginning to feel a lack of respect for this power at the very same time that many in the foreign countries they’re visiting are coming to see them as economically necessary but loathsome. Yes, the new Ugly Americans are the Ugly Chinese.
Just this month, China’s leadership requested Chinese citizens to demonstrate “polite tourist behavior.” The plea was made ironic as just days later China’s social media exploded when it was revealed that a teenage boy had written “Ding Minhao was here” on the wall of a 3,000-year-old relic in Luxor, Egypt.* That followed a report from months ago about outrage over carving Chinese names in landmarks, including the Frederiksborg Palace in Denmark. Meanwhile, Thailand has recently reported a backlash against the rise in Chinese tourists, whose cheap behavior Thai locals classify as “deplorable.” In a bit of irony, many of the anti-Chinese tourist complaints center around the group’s cheapness, even though data shows them to now be the highest spending tourist group. And even then, this lavish spending itself has created its own backlash, such as in Hong Kong, where the Chinese tourist-focused complaint is that the profligate group is clogging the shopping malls. Spend too little, spend too much, it seems the Chinese tourist can’t win.
Unfortunately, Chinese upset about discrimination have enough to point to that charges like those against United Airlines have a foundation. In March, Chinese citizens were outraged—and called for a boycott—after a Chinese employee at a five-star Maldives resort revealed that hot water kettles had been removed only from the rooms of Chinese guests so as to prevent them from making instant noodles (and in turn forcing them into the resort’s restaurants). The anti-Chinese tourism sentiment found its snobbish poster child last year in the form of French luxury brand Zadig & Voltaire, which stated that its new Paris boutique hotel “won’t be open to Chinese tourists.” The great chronicler of Sino-global culture clashes, Sinopathic, has a laundry list of recent incidents big and small, from SCUBA tours to US Customs targeting to rumors of recycled food. With the speed at which the group has expanded and the significant chasm of understanding between cultures that’s slowed adaptation, it’s no surprise numerous surveys have found that Chinese remain dissatisfied with how well their needs are served.
Alexander Glos, CEO of the i2i Group, the official representative in China for Seattle Convention and Visitor’s Bureau amongst others, is introspective about the whole situation, saying that Chinese tourists are used as a weapon by China’s state media. He told brandchannel, “Chinese are discouraged from traveling to Japan because of the crisis over the islands. Somebody in France jumps into the Olympic torch relay and suddenly Chinese don’t go to France anymore. It’s very disappointing that this occurs, but it is China’s only way of reaching out to some of these countries. The real victims are the Chinese tourists.” Yet, he adds, “On the other hand, many international travel companies are not very attractive for the Chinese because they don’t offer services and amenities the Chinese want. All Marriotts around the world have cheeseburgers on their room service menu because Americans order cheeseburgers. Chinese order different items and if you want to cater to the Chinese then you have to offer what the Chinese want.”
“Being ‘China ready’ is critical,” Leo Seaton, Corporate Media Relations Manager for Tourism Australia, told brandchannel. Seaton says that to fully leverage its appeal as a destination, many of Australia’s tourism operators are adapting their businesses to cater better to Chinese visitors.
Seaton’s extensive list of examples includes hotel conglomerate Accor adding Chinese menus items; Mandarin welcome kits and staff training; Mandarin speaking staff at Jacob’s Creek Visitor Centre in the Barossa Valley in South Australia; “China Ready” workshops for employees at Burswood Entertainment Complex in Perth; a “Gold Mountain Experience” tour was added—especially after Chinese requests—to Ballarat, Victoria’s Sovereign Hill outdoor museum; a Mandarin iPhone app and Mandarin-enabled website for visitors to Weibo their experiences at Phillip Island Nature Park; express lanes for local Chinese tour guides at Merlin Entertainments Group properties, including the Sydney Aquarium and the Sydney Tower Eye. Madame Tussaud’s Sydney location has even added a number of Chinese celebrities to its wax museum. Seaton adds that a bare minimum is that all signage must be translated into simplified Chinese.
As for the Maldivian resort’s water kettle response to Chinese tourists? Weigh that against the response of New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which makes a specific point to put a hot water kettle in rooms of guests it knows are Chinese. As for the The Maldives, China is now the largest source of tourism to those islands. Last year, 230,000 Chinese visited The Maldives, a 12.5 percent increase from the year before, representing nearly a quarter of all Maldives tourism, but Chinese tourists will gladly find somewhere else if the island’s reports cannot switch gears.
Other destinations have focused on more, say, simple things. After Chinese newspapers were in an uproar after a couple dozen Chinese tourists were robbed within hours of arriving in Paris in March, France’s Tourism Minister vocally vowed that it would protect Chinese visitors.
“I think what you’re going to see in the next couple of years is a radical transformation of services and amenities available to the Chinese,” says Glos, “because Chinese tourism companies, hotel operators etc., have started to purchase hotels around the world and are converting them into Chinese focused properties.”
As if on cue, Club Med has announced that it entered talks with a Chinese interest that would see a $700 million buyout of the iconic French destination brand by Chinese investors.
Top image, part of Xinhua campaign for “文明” (“cultured”) travel. Luxor image via Weibo.