By Greg Hugh
Some might consider Chinese tourism to be the biggest phenomenon to hit the global travel industry since the invention of commercial flight. The UN World Tourism Organization estimated that by 2015, 100 million Chinese will pack their bags to travel abroad. In 2012, Chinese overtook Americans and Germans as the world’s top international tourism spenders, with 83 million spending a record US$102 billion on international tourism.
This remarkable growth — largely due to relaxed government restrictions on foreign travel and the rise of a Chinese middle class with disposable income — has forced the international travel industry, from hotels to restaurants to shopping centers, to adapt to the influx of Chinese tourists. This phenomenal growth unfortunately has resulted in controversy as to how Chinese tourist behave as they travel the world, and prompted Beijing in 2013 to issue a handy 64-page rulebook aimed at curbing the unruly behavior of Chinese tourists abroad that has resulted in an “uncivilized” stereotype.
In an effort to smooth out international relations, “Guidelines on Civilized Travel Abroad” includes such advice for travelers: keep nose-hair neatly trimmed, avoid using fingers to pick their teeth, and refrain from peeing in the swimming pool. It also mentioned that picking one’s nose in public is frowned upon. China's Vice Premier Wang Yang stated that the tourism louts had 'damaged the image of the Chinese people'.
The booklet, which also comes with helpful illustrations, urged Chinese tourists not to occupy public toilets for long periods or leave footprints on the toilet seat. It also states that life jackets should be left underneath the aircraft seat because ‘if a dangerous situation arises then someone else will not have a life jacket’.
In addition, the handbook also dispensed country-specific advice: Chinese visitors to Germany should only snap their fingers to beckon dogs, not humans. Women in Spain should always wear earrings in public -- or they could be considered effectively naked. Diners in Japan should not play with their clothes or hair during a meal. Tourists are reminded that all air-conditioned places in Hong Kong and Macau are no-smoking areas, and mainlanders should not try to get refunds for food.
As can be expected, these guidelines have been received with mixed reactions by Chinese citizens as perhaps being too specific and restrictive while others feel that they provide tourists and locals with general guidelines as to what is normally expected and accepted behavior. While many countries have eased visa restrictions to attract affluent Chinese tourists, complaints about etiquette continue to make international headlines.
Just a few years ago, only the richest people in China could afford to travel abroad. Now millions of people from China's second- and third-tier cities are applying for passports in order to gain their first glimpse of the outside world.
However, many in China also complain they are treated like second-class citizens abroad. Chinese Internet forums were flooded with protests earlier this year when news emerged that a hotel in the Maldives had removed kettles from rooms occupied by Chinese tourists.
Apparently, the hotel's manager was upset that some Chinese tourists were using boiling water to eat instant noodles in their rooms, instead of spending money in the hotel's restaurants.
Mei Zhang, founder and CEO of Beijing-based travel company Wild China, deals with both inbound and outbound tourists. She says although there are still teething problems, the world’s luxury travel industry is taking positive steps toward making Chinese tourists feel at home.
"The Ritz Paris (currently under renovation) has a Chinese concierge," says Zhang. Shangri-La and the Peninsula - both considered by Chinese to be somewhat Asian brands - have adjusted their restaurant menus and now serve Chinese breakfasts.
"In New York, the Waldorf Astoria gives their Chinese guests a tea kettle and a pair of slippers on arrival.
"The luxury stores in Paris have Chinese-speaking staff. At the Four Seasons in Indonesia, they have Chinese menus, guides and guest ambassadors.
"If you look at surveys and forums in China, the majority of Chinese people are not satisfied with the service they get when they travel -- especially outside East and Southeast Asia, in areas where there are not as many Chinese, like in Europe or North America," Zhang says.
Although all Chinese tourist-related segments seem to be doing quite a bit to improve the situation, there certainly is room for improvement in handling Chinese visitors still.
According to Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt, director of the privately run China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI), which has offices in Beijing and Heide, Germany, the global travel industry needs to stop relying on old stereotypes about the Chinese and actually listen to what they want.
The industry is adapting, acknowledges Arlt, but many big players have yet to recognize that the demographics are quickly shifting. "The problem is the international tourism industry is slowly catching up with the idea that the Chinese traveler is coming, but in fact the Chinese traveler is already here and they're segmenting," says Arlt. "You have two kinds of tourists. Package tourists, who are usually first-time travelers. They do the eight European countries in 10 days, ticking off the sites. For them, the most important thing is to get that shot in front of the Eiffel Tower."
This type of tourist appreciates the congee and hot water kettle, he says.
"But you have a growing number of what we call the 'new Chinese tourist.' People who are better- educated, with more travel experience -- most have been students abroad so they know their way around. Self-organized."
It's these tourists who are looking to try the local cuisine and want new experiences, he says, and resent being stereotyped as an ignorant traveler from the countryside who can't live without his instant noodles.
There are obvious differences in cultures between Chinese tourists and others so it will take time for attitudes to change as more Chinese grow accustomed to global cultures. Even in Hong Kong, for example, people are more polite and self-disciplined. They queue up for everything. But in China, no one will ever queue up and they will fight for things. They have been conditioned that if you wait, you will be left with nothing.
Still, there's little chance that the occasional clash between Chinese tourists and the outside world will stop China's booming tourism industry.
So what are Chinese travelers looking for when they leave their homeland? Mainly luxury goods. Many tourists leave China to shop, spending an average of $1,230 per trip, and some estimates show they spend about $3,200 per trip when visiting New York City. Items such as clothes and accessories (many of which were made in China) are often at the top of their list. Arlt, director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, stated, “Luxury goods are 20 to 30 percent cheaper in other global cities. If you plan to spend $10,000 on shopping and only spend $1,000 on airfare, it’s much cheaper for Chinese tourists to fly abroad to shop.”
While the increase in discretionary income among China’s middle class is part of the tourism spike in the U.S., the Chinese government’s decision in 2007 to make the U.S. an “approved destination” has also helped. The designation lets American businesses advertise and market to audiences in China.
As U.S. businesses adapt, they have been forced to confront the reality that America is no longer the inevitable No. 1 destination for Chinese tourists. Because of prior approval by the Chinese government, many European countries have been marketing to Chinese tourists far longer. University of South Carolina professor Robert Li told USA Today that travelers from Shanghai now prefer to travel to France rather than the U.S.
But the number of travelers visiting the U.S. from China is still projected to grow dramatically over the next few years. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that from 2010 to 2016, the number of Chinese tourists visiting the U.S. will grow by 232 percent.
As can be expected, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York are among “favorite” spots for Chinese tourists coming to the United States. Now Minnesota and the Mall of America — the largest mall in the country — want to get on that list.
"We see the growth in the number of Chinese travelers to the United States. Our goal is to try to make Minnesota in their mindset, maybe not as a primary, but as a secondary destination," John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota Tourism, Minnesota's tourism board, told China Daily. Trying to attract Chinese tourists to the state and the mall in Bloomington began about five years ago. But now the state is in the process of signing a contract with a Chinese firm to represent Minnesota to Chinese tour operators and promote Minnesota to local media, which includes bringing writers over on "familiarization tours" to write about the state for audiences in their foreign countries.
Mall of America representatives also are going on tour missions in Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, said Doug Killian, director of tourism at Mall of America.
The state tripled its international marketing budget and though focus is on countries like Canada, Germany, and the UK, it is now looking at reaching travelers not only from China, but also Mexico and France.
When it comes to attracting the world's new No. 1- spending tourist, price is a big advantage for the Mall of America and for America in general.
"I have witnessed Chinese buy 20 pairs of the same shoe to bring back for friends and family, because it is so much cheaper," said Lauren Himle, the Mall of America's first-ever China-focused tourism account executive.
With its 10 million-square-foot expansion, the mall hopes to attract 8 million more international visitors, an increase of 62 percent. If Himle and other Minnesota groups can swing it, a large share of this increase will be cash-in-hand Chinese.
The biggest challenge for Minnesota and MOA, generally considered “flyover country,” Himle says, "is without a doubt raising awareness.”
The mall's struggle begins with the fundamental fact that much of the information out there uses different Chinese names: the travel section of the huge information portal 163.com, the MOA is the "美国商城" (měiguó shāngchéng), but at its Wikipedia-like page on Baidu, often called "China's Google," it's also called "美国购物中心" (měiguó gòuwù zhòng xīn). The mall officially uses the first translation, but the problem is evident.
Additionally there are many other obstacles such as government controls affecting data gathering, providing “incentives” to tour guide operators, Mandarin-speaking staff and ease of money conversion. Also: no direct Minneapolis-China flights. Chinese MOA visitors have to connect through Japan, Chicago or Detroit or some other city, making a trip not only more expensive, but more time-consuming.
Bill Deef, vice president of international relations at Meet Minneapolis, the local visitor’s bureau, says in the last five years, basic relationships have been strengthened with the important, well-connected California, New York and Florida operators.
Minnesota is far from a lost cause; 5.6 percent of the state’s overseas visitors are Chinese, Deef notes. MSP saw 33 percent more Chinese visitors last year than the year before — though Chinese traveler-count still stood at only 10,472, fewer than half the 22,253 from the United Kingdom.
Despite its unheralded status, Minnesota does have advantages for some pockets of Chinese tourists.
Local multinational organizations offer foundations for increasing Minnesota's China profile, since business interests remain the biggest reason Chinese find themselves here.
When Mayor R.T, Rybak visited China in 2009, it was mostly about Target. However, he also smoothly mixed in some tourism interests, to demonstrate how Minneapolis businesses and good coordination could be a tourism marketing message multiplier.
Said Himle, "We are looking at leveraging the fact that the University of Minnesota has the largest population of Chinese nationals, as well as a huge alumni base in China with an alumni office operating in Beijing. The Mayo Clinic, Medtronic, 3M and Cargill also are all huge draws."
The mall works with operators to ensure the city's corporate visitors include a trip to the mall. The MOA's proximity to the airport makes this an even easier possibility.
The MOA also is getting help from partners. Explore Minnesota Tourism has issued a $45,000 RFP (what does this stand for?) for China-market representation to trade groups and media there. This outreach will include a Chinese website and social media outreach.
Last year, the Minnesota Legislature also bumped up the state’s marketing budget by $5 million, a significant chunk targeted on China.
Beyond the region's Fortune 500 draws are the state's natural wonders. With China becoming increasingly polluted and its citizens increasingly concerned about pollution, the abundant lakes, parks and eco tourism make for an excellent tour package that includes mall-shopping.
But even here, the mall faces a steep, competitive climb to get a foothold in the mindspace of Chinese tourists who have increasingly wide options.
New Zealand is quickly becoming a favorite destination for its landscape. Domestic travel by RV is growing. Carnival just sent its fourth cruise liner to China to meet booming demand. All are indications that as the MOA ramps up, marquee destinations will fight to attract sales as well.