Chinese tourists are among the world’s most maligned. But they also spend $300 billion abroad each year, making them a force too important to ignore.
Mainland Chinese citizens made 136.8 million trips across their borders in 2016 (according to China Outbound Tourism Research Institute) – a 2.7 per cent year-over-year rise. And, in a significant shift from previous years, fewer than half of those trips were to “Greater China” – ie Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.
More than 70 million trips were to other destinations – an 11.7 per cent increase from 2015.
That’s roughly the same as the number of Americans (66 million) who travelled internationally in 2016. But here’s a difference: the Chinese are spending far more than anyone else.
Chinese tourists spent $292 billion (£224 billion) abroad in 2015, nearly three times as much as the second biggest spenders, the Americans, and nearly five times as much as Britons abroad. These are the most recent statistics available from the World Tourism Organisation, which has predicted a 14 per cent rise in Chinese spending in 2016.
Where they go
The Chinese name for China is 中国, pronounced “Zhōngguó” in Mandarin, and it translates literally as “The Middle Kingdom”; for centuries China expected people to come to it.
Pair that philosophy with half a century of isolation under the Communist Party, add into the mix the frustratingly difficult process of applying for foreign visas and the relatively recent emergence of China’s middle class, and it’s hardly surprising that, traditionally, Chinese have headed to domestic destinations for their holidays.
In fact, they’ve really only been travelling abroad for pleasure in significant numbers for the past two to three decades. (Europeans, of course, and more recently, Americans, have been trotting around the globe helping themselves for rather longer… making their bad behaviour, perhaps, more inexcusable.)
Domestic tourism has increased 10 per cent annually over recent years – and contributes to an estimated four per cent of the country’s GDP.
Big cities – Beijing and Shanghai top the destination wishlist – see so many domestic tourists on even ordinary weekends that major shopping streets have one-way pavements, with police directing foot traffic.
Often domestic trips take patriotic inspiration: go to the Three Gorges Dam, a grim industrial site in one of the country’s poorest regions, for example, and it’s swarming with visitors.
On a recent trip, a Chinese guest asked whether I, an American, had visited my own country’s Hoover Dam. As I scrambled to remember exactly where in the US that nearly 100-year-old structure might be found, she recited comparative statistics on the two constructions.
That so many high-ranking cadres read engineering at university (these things matter: many Americans got law degrees; British politicians go for PPE) goes a long way to explaining why the Chinese dam was built (its productivity is hotly debated: the word on the street clashes dramatically with official statistics), and also why travel to see it has been so enthusiastically promoted.
The country’s wild south-west is often praised for being geographically and ideologically furthest away from the capital. Intrepid young people head to the mountainous Yunnan province, which borders Burma, Laos and Vietnam, and is one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the country.
But whether you’ve opted for a jaunt up the holy Yellow Mountain in Anhui, or a pilgrimage to the monumental 5th century Buddhas at the Yungang grottoes near the northern city of Datong, as you take in these ancient sites of astounding beauty, one thing is for certain: you will not be alone.
Isolation is not much of a goal when Chinese head abroad, either. Relatively nearby destinations – Vietnamese or Sri Lankan beaches, Japanese or Korean cities – are popular. American and Western European destinations are draws – China is behind only Mexico and Canada in the number of its nationals embarking on tourism in the US – and smaller European countries saw increased popularity over the past few years, according to COTRI. As in other markets, fears of terrorism seem to have stalled growth in Chinese tourism to Egypt and Turkey, and to parts of Western Europe.
What Chinese like to do
When Chinese tourists come to Europe, they’re determined to hit – and shop in – every major capital. From Big Ben in London to the vineyards of Bordeaux, for first-timers, especially, they’re actively pursuing the beaten track.
This is not a backpacking people: the young nouveau riche kids you’ll find in Canada, the US and Europe aren’t too bothered by exploring; more cultured students are working round-the-clock to be accepted in foreign MA and PhD programmes. Roughing it is not an aspiration for anyone.
Middle class Chinese often travel in groups, and coaches are a frequent feature, along with their umbrella-wielding Chinese guides. On these tours, they’re after a whirlwind of culture and history – it would not be unprecedented to visit 10 European countries in a fortnight.
Cynical young Chinese will scornfully tell you that the travelling middle classes pay lip service to appreciating culture, but they are mainly after the goods: specifically, European brands they can buy in situ, and bring home to lord over their non-travelling neighbours (this may go some way to explaining the extraordinary spending figures).
Aspirational destinations include the Maldives – and hotels there have been scrambling to cater for China’s emergent upper-middle class – but the question of “What to do?” remains high on operators’ minds: Chinese visitors aren’t adept at the “flop” portion of fly-and-flop holidays, eschewing, as they do, sunbathing, and having a limited appetite for recreational swimming.
If it’s classed as “luxury”, you’re guaranteed to find some Chinese tourists, but spending patterns skew far more, hotels report, towards shopping than they do towards in-hotel spends; if Brazilian guests are willing to splash some cash in order to bring the party, and Americans tip with abandon, the Chinese are rather more modest in their outlay, reserving their money for hitting the shops.
How they behave
Chinese of all economic classes are adept at operating in crowds. But spatial awareness is not a strong suit. While queues are not a popular pastime at home, tourists may consider joining the funny foreign customs while abroad.
Still, the Chinese government was moved just four years ago, thanks to unflattering feedback, to issue unintentionally revelatory proclamations on what its citizens should and should not do while abroad, under the title of ‘Guide to Civilised Tourism and Travel’. Choice tips include:
- Don’t lie down in public
- Don’t cough, sneeze or pick your nose or teeth in front of others
- Don’t take a long time using public toilets.
What Chinese on holiday like to wear
China is vast and its population legion, and the gap between rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate; it would be foolish to generalise about the sartorial range on show.
Chinese in groups often wear US trucker-style hats or visors, proclaiming the name of their tour operator. There will often be impressive photographic equipment.
An alarming number of women on domestic trips will be wearing inappropriate shoes; it is typical, while climbing misty and muddy Buddhist mountains in Chinese provinces, to find women in elaborately shoulder-padded polyester dresses with ankle-high pop socks and high heels in even the warmest of conditions.
And, of course, you’ll see also the latest trends with designer labels aplenty on many international tourists.
Dining and drinking habits
French food has much in common with Chinese: both cuisines – regionally varied as they are – rely on sophisticated sauces to cover rather humble portions of meat and veg, the legacy of decades of austerity. (Britain, by contrast, was the land of plenty for many generations and, thus, has a relatively unsophisticated indigenous fare).
Still, habits of a lifetime are hard to break, and if you’re used to having noodle soup with vegetables for breakfast, cereal will disappoint.
However, increasing availability of international food in Chinese cities has made the country’s diners far more cosmopolitan and flexible in their eating habits. Just don’t demand heavy drinking (there’s a widespread alcohol intolerance) or major dairy consumption (ditto re: lactose intolerance).
By Sally Peck