Feb 10, 2015

    Many Chinese tourists on a learning curve

    AS THE number of Chinese travellers taking trips abroad is projected to be greater than those travelling domestically during the upcoming Spring Festival, we are likely to hear more about the antics of some these tourists abroad in the media this year.

    Last year's high-profile incidents were aptly put into perspective by most media outlets - the few outrageous incidents were hardly representative of Chinese tourists overall, given more than 100 million Chinese travelled abroad last year. But Chinese tourists can expect more scrutiny simply because they are a relatively new phenomenon.

    Another reason for the visibility of these tourists - especially in some countries in Asia, where their numbers have become substantial - is that a greater proportion of Chinese travel in groups, compared with travellers from most other countries.

    A propensity to travel in tour groups is partly due to time restrictions (most employees can take their holidays only during specific times of the year such as the Chinese New Year "shutdown") and partly due to inexperience or timidity - most Chinese are unable to speak English and many are on their first trip abroad.

    So these new tourists feel safer in groups. But groups of like-minded compatriots tend to become a gaggle - raucous, boisterous and oblivious to their hosts' finer sensitivities.

    Yet these tourists aren't consciously disrespectful, for even within China, these same people can appear crude and loud among the more urbane Chinese.

    After all, there are many people in China who have acquired wealth before a concurrent assimilation of sophistication; it's not only the educated and cultured Chinese who travel.

    Moreover, for many Chinese tourists, an inability to speak or read English, tourism's de facto lingua franca, makes their interactions awkward and leaves them unaware of subtle sensitivities.

    Chinese tourists can often be seen eating instant noodles. I am sure they would like to sample the local food, if only they could read the menus or have the courage to make fluent inquiries in a restaurant. But the unadventurous abroad often resort to familiar comfort food.

    In this sense, any offensive or uncouth behaviour is not so much rudeness but clumsiness; it's largely a case of bewildered tourists abroad acting clumsily due to a lack of knowledge and an inability to communicate.

    There is certainly a learning curve ahead for many Chinese tourists, and the Chinese government's publication of a code of conduct for travellers will expedite that process.

    So, although the Chinese media and government have a part to play in educating the Chinese about sensitive and immersive travel, in time, people in places where the Chinese travel will get used to the particular quirks and whims of these travellers.

    In the meantime, people in host countries should bear in mind that many of the Chinese they come across will be making their first tentative forays out into the world beyond - and first steps are often awkward.