Alarmed at an emerging reputation for sending awful tourists abroad, the Chinese government in Beijing announced this week that it's creating a database of unruly vacationers.
Li Jinzao of the National Tourism Administration told state-run media that the database will flag infractions by Chinese travelers, monitor habitual troublemakers (who may face unspecified punishments), and share data with airlines, hotels, and travel agencies. But is shaming travelers with a centralized, dystopian solution that would draw outrage in most countries really the answer here?
You can't blame the Chinese authorities for being frustrated after several years of increasingly common international complaints against Chinese tourists for spitting in the streets, yelling in restaurants, fighting in public, and otherwise disrespecting local customs and laws. Most notably, in 2013, a teenager from Nanjing caused outcry at home and abroad when he carved his name (quite noticeably) into an ancient Egyptian relic.
Within the past year alone, there have been high-profile cases of Chinese tourists letting their reliving on sidewalks or into open water. Flyers have reportedly ignored safety instructions and opened emergency exits on planes to get some fresh air or disembark early. Last month, the government's China Daily mouthpiece went so far as to call Chinese tourists "barbarians" after a woman on a Bangkok-Nanjing flight deliberately threw scalding hot water on a Thai flight attendant. Another man on the same flight threatened to blow up the plane.
Those are only the most prominent cases. The situation has grown dire enough that Hong Kong Airlines has apparently trained its crews in kung fu to quell smashed Chinese passengers, and the Louvre in Paris has been forced to put up Chinese-language signs warning against urination or defecation on its grounds. Honk Kong has considered lowering its cap on Mainland Chinese visitors by 20 percent. Even North Korea has lodged a complaint against Chinese tourists, claiming they throw candy at local kids like they're feeding ducks.
Some worry that the problem will only grow as Chinese tourism numbers continue to balloon. In 2004 there were only 29 million outbound tourism trips from China, but thanks to new wealth, an appreciating currency, and easing visa restrictions, that number surged to an estimated 116 million last year. Analysts expect the figure to hit 200 million by 2020.
In 2013, Chinese tourists spent about $129 billion abroad, overtaking Americans, who spent about $86 billion, as the most profligate travelers. That heavy spending helps to buffer the impact of their obnoxious ways. But as the numbers increase, the " walking wallets" shtick may wear thin.
Of course, the new database is only the latest Chinese attempt to nip this reputation in the bud. In 2012, the state released the 64-page Guidebook for Civilized Tourism, with advice for travelers like not to steal life jackets from planes or pick their noses. In October 2013, the state enacted a new tourism law; one provision bound travelers to a code of politeness and respect for local traditions. In the past year, state television has run ads featuring a man in a panda suit sleeping on public benches and forcing people to take pictures with him before reminding viewers to "be a good panda" while traveling.
Some observers believe that these bad habits are just the result of a lack of exposure to international travel, which will be cured by experience and time rather than punitive measures. "Traveling is a learning experience for tourists," Wang Wanfei, a tourism professor at Zhejiang University, told Reuters in 2013. "They learn how to absorb local culture in the process, and get rid of their bad tourist behavior."
Most Chinese were only allowed to travel abroad—to a few nations—for non-work reasons as of 1997. In recent years, these novice travelers have been joined by the nouveau riche from the countryside who, perhaps for lack of exposure, seem to transpose their own customs onto foreign nations without thinking it through it too much. It doesn't help that tourist services abroad have not yet caught up with Chinese travel trends. Many lack the linguistic or cultural resources to communicate with Chinese visitors, leading to frustrations and confrontations as well as numerous faux pas.
The American middle class had similar problems when post-World War II travel took off, earning the "ugly American" moniker for their loud and whiny conversations, funny clothing, and utter lack of contextual couth. It's true that American tourists still get into all sorts of trouble abroad— damaging relics, desecrating national treasures, and even eating rare species. Yet for all those flashy headlines, a legacy of open travel rules have left Americans fairly well behaved and considerate tourists; a 2013 Condé Nast survey of international service workers found that much of the world sees Americans as fairly pleasant and considerate.
Whereas it took Americans decades to shed the worst of our habits, there are indications that the fundamentals of Chinese tourism are already in flux. Callous behaviors were often associated with group bus tours, but individual travelers are rapidly displacing these quick-stop packages—a younger, more worldly set seeking authentic cultural experiences. It's also noteworthy that most stories of tourists acting badly go viral on mainland social media outlets, where fellow Chinese condemn and shame their brethren long before the international press catches on.
Even if Chinese tourists do get past this humiliating chapter, they may be saddled with an entrenched stereotype. Americans can attest to the staying power of such perceptions. But if the Chinese do start to make a better impression abroad, this new bad behavior database may come in handy—proving with hard, definitive data that their tourists aren't as bad as the rest of the world might like to believe.
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