Signposts to the Future – The Chinese Go Abroad

This is the second in a series of posts devoted to building a foundation on which to erect a reasoned prediction of China’s economic, social, and political future.


Every tour operator, airline, and major hotel chain in the world is salivating over the potential spending of outbound Chinese tourists once they acquire the means for foreign travel.  And it’s easy to understand why.

When you live in such crowded quarters it's not surprising that behaviors accommodate the mere task of daily life.
When you live in such crowded quarters it’s not surprising that behaviors accommodate the mere task of daily life.

In 2012, according to government statistics, 83,182,700 Chinese traveled abroad.  That’s more than the entire population of Germany, the most populous country in Europe, and just under the total populations of Australia, Canada, and Malaysia combined.  Collectively, the Chinese spent 102 billion USD, making China the largest outbound tourism market in the world.

But if you’re in the tourism trade outside of Asia and extrapolating that 18% annual growth into your own pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, here’s the glassmaker’s advice:  Don’t count on it continuing.  Outbound tourism will continue to grow at impressive rates out of sheer momentum for now.  The trend will quickly lose momentum, however, particularly beyond the borders of neighboring Asia.

The top three ‘foreign’ tourist destinations for Chinese nationals in 2012 were Hong Kong, Macau, and South Korea, according to Euromonitor International, followed by Thailand, Taiwan, and Singapore.  Foreign, maybe, but not far from the tree as the apple falls.

And according to statistics gathered by TripAdvisor’s Chinese brand, the top non-Asian destinations in July and August of 2013 were Paris and Dubai, with Chinese visits to each up 360% and 210%, respectively.

There is a lifetime of cultural and history to experience within China.
There is a lifetime of culture and history to experience within China.

It would appear, in other words, that while the Chinese clearly like to travel, they don’t yet venture far from home and when they do they appear to be attracted to destinations that are either home to the most famous luxury brands in the world or home to the most famous luxury brands at duty free prices.

One has to wonder, however, how many Chinese nationals will be inclined to visit Paris once the novelty of visiting the birthplace of Louis Vuitton wears off.  Will the romance of the Seine or the croissants of the Champs Elysée be enough to lure the Chinese away from their own beloved cuisine and familiar language?  I’m skeptical.

Going back to an earlier post, you have to appreciate that what the Chinese lack more than anything else at the moment is curiosity.  Most Chinese, I believe, just aren’t that interested in knowing how the French live.  Or the Americans.  Or even their hemispherian roommates, the Aussies and the Kiwis.  The Chinese assume, just a little dismissively, that they all live like foreigners.

And there’s plenty to see right here in China.  It’s a large country with a varied landscape, from the mountains of Tibet to the grasslands of Mongolia and the glass cathedrals of Shanghai, the cultural diversity of 56 officially recognized minority groups, and more history than you could absorb in a lifetime of sightseeing.

The landscape of China is varied and beautiful.
The landscape of China is both stunning and diverse.

Many Chinese students, of course, are filling the lecture halls of foreign universities.  Most, however, are driven by an economic agenda, not a cultural or intellectual one.  A foreign education is a sure path to a better-paying job back in China.  Much to the notice of their hosts and the chagrin of their parents who are shelling out big bucks for their foreign experience, in fact, Chinese students studying abroad seldom immerse themselves in local culture and history and often appear happy to spend their free time with other Chinese students.  (Not a bad thing, for sure.  I often hang out with Americans here in Beijing.)

Frictions already run high.  One colleague who took a sightseeing tour through Italy and France found the trip interesting, but not always pleasant.  When a busload of Chinese tourists pulls up, he noted, the body language of the non-Chinese immediately changes.  Guards go up; the friendly smiles harden

And when I sent a fluent English-speaker to the U.S. for 30 days of training a housekeeper at a major U.S. hotel chain told him that if he wanted his room cleaned he would have to leave $5 on the dresser each morning.  He innocently complied, of course, and the housekeeper had a good month, but when I told him he had been cheated (accounting rejected his expense report, of course) his enthusiasm for returning was undoubtedly dampened.

A display of beauty at the Beijing Botanical Gardens.
A display of beauty at the Beijing Botanical Gardens.

The Chinese, in their usual abundance of both pragmatism and self-awareness are the first to acknowledge that some of the negative preconceptions are understandable.  When a Chinese teenager wrote his name on a stone sculpture in the ancient Luxor Temple in Egypt earlier this year, no one was more incensed than his fellow Chinese countrymen.

Prior to this year’s Golden Week holiday in early October, in fact, the National Tourism Administration saw fit to issue a 64-page booklet entitled, Guidebook for Civilised Tourism, educating Chinese tourists on how to behave when visiting foreign countries so as not to bring embarrassment or shame to their fellow countrymen.

It included the usual admonitions not to spit, not to urinate in swimming pools, and not to drink soup directly from the bowl.  It also sought to reinforce good hygiene and appearance by encouraging travelers to trim their nose hair, although many a Westerner could use the same advice.

And some of it was downright amusing, such as the admonishment not to remove the life vest under your airplane seat when you deplane, lest the next passenger need it.  Or the warning not to leave footprints on the toilet seat by using a Western toilet in the same fashion you would use an Asian ‘squattie.’

All well intended and, I might add, well received.  (I wonder how my fellow countrymen would react if the U.S. government issued a similar pamphlet admonishing America tourists not to speak loudly and to be a little more accommodating of local cuisine and food preparation.)

In the end, however, who needs it?  When you are part of one of the oldest civilizations on the planet that has given the world some of its greatest inventions and can boast of the second largest economy in the world, why should you accommodate your behavior to accommodate someone else’s cultural biases?

Not the Seine, perhaps, but beautiful nonetheless.
Not the Seine, perhaps, but beautiful nonetheless.

The Chinese, after all, clear their throats and spit not to offend Westerners, but as part of a health protocol that quite logically holds that bacteria and other foreign matter and waste should be removed from the body as quickly as possible.

In the end, I believe, the Chinese will be much like my grandmother; comfortable in what they know.  They won’t flock to Stonehenge or the Grand Canyon.  They won’t take culinary tours through the heartland of France or flock to the dude ranches of the American West.  They will, by and large, stay home.  Wouldn’t you?

Familiarity, beauty, and comfort all close to home.
Familiarity, beauty, and comfort all close to home.

Copyright © 2013 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.





One thought on “Signposts to the Future – The Chinese Go Abroad

  1. Very interesting insights. Wonder if the P-S or other newsoutlets in the US would be interested in this and other insightful journeys into the Chinese psyche and behaviors. From this blog one might tailor US travel for Chinese to fit their needs and in doing that help the local tourist economy. Even without the entrepreneurial aspect this is a well-written, fascinating blog.

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