Chinese tourists get ready to sail to Phuket Island, Thailand. Photo: IC
As the tour bus pulled to a stop beside the Grand Canyon, the tourists spilled out and onto the Sky Walk on the western edge of the massive gorge. Some were shouting "I've conquered nature!" while striking a pose.
Surrounded by shouts and discarded cigarette butts, their tour guide Eric Luo patiently waited. Soon it would be quiet, and this gaggle of tourists would be on their way to Las Vegas to gamble a fortune on the tables or spend it in luxury stores.
As night fell, many drifted off to sleep on the bus. "A cycle is almost done," Luo said to himself, "but more are coming."
Working as a tour guide for a Chicago-based agency providing services for Chinese tourists, Luo has had around 200 similar group trips. "The schedule is always very tight, and you have to frequently remind some tourists to behave," Luo told the Global Times.
"Rude" and "ignorant" are terms that have been disparagingly used to describe Chinese tourists overseas, and during a recent national conference about the national Tourism Law, Vice Premier Wang Yang noted that "some tourists don't obey public rules while traveling and are hampering our national image," then said such behaviors should be regulated.
Wang's words have brought the issue to the spotlight once more, as Chinese tourists head abroad in greater numbers than ever before.
Cash or manners?
Being noisy or messy, ignoring smoking signs, cutting in lines, spitting in public places or disrespecting local customs top the list of bad behaviors overseas, but despite this negative stereotype of Chinese tourists, their purchasing power is sorely needed in many countries.
According to an April report from the United Nations World Tourism Organization, China is now the top source of international tourism expenditure, spending $102 billion in 2012, with 83 million people traveling overseas. China is now the fastest-growing tourism market in the world.
"I saw Putonghua-speaking staff in luxury stores in Seoul and Paris, ordered congee in a Hilton hotel in Los Angeles, and UnionPay is now widely available in Southeast Asia to cater to Chinese customers," Tao Yi, a Beijing-based investment analyst who travels frequently, told the Global Times.
While the international service industry is trying its best to be attentive, domestic tourism agencies are working to educate people about proper etiquette.
Major agencies providing overseas travel services include the China International Travel Service Limited, Spring Tours, China Comfort Travel and China CYTS Tours. Representatives from all these companies told the Global Times that they have pre-travel briefings to introduce cultural differences and local rules to customers, trying to nurture good manners "after receiving complaints or encountering incidents."
"It feels bad when your clients sometimes act rudely and yell 'I paid money to have fun' when locals criticize their behavior and ask them to stop," said Luo.
Luo's sentiment was echoed by several overseas tourism professionals reached by the Global Times. "Some Chinese nouveau riche enjoy the power brought to them by money. They kind of skipped the phase of sophistication because their wealth accumulated overnight and they feel they deserve anything because they're a paying guest," said Vincent Lee, a consultant with a New York-based tourism agency.
Litter lies on the ground after visitors left a fireworks viewing point near the Hong Kong Arts Centre on February 10, 2013. Photo: IC
Although it has become quite a cliché, cultural differences are still an important factor when considering the behavior of Chinese tourists.
"The audience around us asked my mom to shut off her iPad when we watched Phantom of the Opera, as the screen light was disturbing them, but she was just reading about the plot to understand the show, which is OK at home," Kate Huang, a student studying in Boston, told the Global Times.
Zhang Mei, founder and CEO of WildChina, a Beijing-based high-end travel company, told the Global Times that Chinese tourists face a learning curve when adopting manners and picking up hints during their travels.
"Over the past few decades our society has lacked education when it comes to manners. For example, it's common for many Chinese to speak loudly, but they learn to be quiet in public places once they feel unwelcome overseas," she said.
Netizens are divided on the issue, but most agree that there is a problem. "It's really embarrassing to see criticism of Chinese tourists. Sadly, they behave the same way at home and this makes it hard to defend them," said one Sina Weibo user with the username Vivian, in comments echoed by many others.
The Tourism Law, which will take effect on October 1, explicitly states that tourists should behave and respect local customs, but ultimately it can only apply to domestic tourism.
In the views of Han Yuling, a professor of tourism management with Beijing International Studies University, tourists need to be just as aware of their obligations as their rights.
"It would be helpful to have legal grounds when communicating with clients about their behavior in the future, giving us some power to restrain them," said a consultant surnamed Zhao with China Comfort Travel.
But improved awareness about tourism etiquette through social education would have a penetrating power and long-term effect in behavioral change, said Zhang.
Chinese tourists tend to purchase group tours. While these tours are still very popular, a new generation of Chinese tourists are beginning to make their voices heard - figuratively speaking. They are well-educated people, mostly aged under 45, and like to blend in and interact politely with locals and explore out-of-the-way attractions, as described by the Germany-based China Outbound Tourism Research Institute.
"I recall a survey last year saying that American tourists have the poorest image, followed by Chinese, and the descriptions were basically the same. Many first-time Chinese overseas travelers have behavioral problems, but they are also bringing back lessons they learn. It takes time but the changes are obvious," Lee said.
"The market is maturing rapidly and the problems will be solved. Both Chinese tourists and the overseas service industries have to step up and learn. Most importantly, oversensitivity is not the right mindset for travelers, and I hope more people will learn to enjoy the ultimate travel luxury - slowing down to really experience the destination," said Zhang.