Last year, more than 100 million people from China traveled abroad, making the country the world’s #1 exporter of international tourists. What’s most amazing about this fact is that, just a generation ago, only the elite and politically connected could get permission to travel abroad. The rest of the population could only dream of such a “bourgeois” activity under the restrictions of the Communist state. But today, with a rapidly growing middle class and a socialist economy that looks and smells a lot like capitalism, Chinese citizens have unprecedented opportunities to travel the world.
The boom in Chinese tourism isn’t just a way for Chinese citizens to learn about the rest of the world. It’s also an opportunity for the rest of the world to learn about the Chinese. As the anthropologist James Clifford once said, not only do tourists travel, but their cultures travel as well.
Here are some of the things the new Chinese traveler would like you to know.
Thailand is a favorite for Chinese travelers due to the ease of getting tourist visas, the popularity of a recent movie called Lost in Thailand, and the promise of white sand beaches and elephant rides. More affluent travelers flock to France, where wine tours are all the rage as Chinese consumers are starting to appreciate the once unknown beverage. The craze for wine is so intense that imitation French chateaus and wineries are popping up all over China, even in places like the Gobi Desert.
South Korea is also a popular destination because of Chinese fascination with Korean soap operas. Tours of Korean film sets, complete with meet-and-greets with hunky male stars, are a dream come true for many young women in China today.
Middle-class travelers from China will forgo luxury living conditions and settle for simpler accommodations if it means more in our pockets to go shopping. Global hotel brands are starting to take notice, developing inexpensive hotels near prime shopping locations and big brand outlets. Which brings us to the next key trend among Chinese tourists…
For the vast majority of Chinese travelers today, traveling abroad means a chance to buy high-end luxury brands like Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. It’s not unusual to see a Chinese tourist wipe out a store’s inventory of handbags, each one costing hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Life in China today is all about conspicuous consumption, and luxury foreign brands are the best way to show off one’s status. It’s far cheaper to buy these products abroad because the Chinese government slaps a 50% tariff on these items sold domestically. You can bet a Chinese tourist’s suitcase won’t be filled with cheap t-shirts and trinkets.
When you encounter Chinese travelers these days, you’re likely to see them getting shuttled on and off buses in big groups, wearing matching t-shirts, and following a tour guide around. But as more Chinese, especially younger travelers, gain confidence in navigating the world on their own, independent travel is seeing a remarkable rise. And, like their counterparts elsewhere in the world, they’re making their plans on the internet.
Qunar, which translates as “where are you going?” is one of the most exciting websites to emerge in China recently. In addition to helping with booking, it lets users share their travel itineraries and crowdsource the best ideas. Online resources are also encouraging Chinese travelers to break out of the norm and go to places that are less often visited by their compatriots — including India, South Africa, and Brazil.
Chinese citizens have really only been traveling in large numbers over the last couple of years. When you see Chinese tourist groups, odds are this may be the very first time most of those people have traveled abroad. So, yeah, there can be cultural clashes, and what others may consider uncouth behavior.
With incidents like the one in which a Chinese teen put graffiti on a 3,500-year-old Egyptian temple, it’s easy to view them as the “ugly Chinese,” just like we were once the “ugly Americans.” But most Chinese are sincerely trying to do the right thing — so much so that classes on foreign etiquette are gaining popularity. Even the Chinese government is eager to improve the image of its citizens abroad, putting out a 64-page guide on how not to be a terrible tourist.
You may already be noticing more offerings aimed at Chinese travelers in your favorite hotels around the world. From soupy rice with fried youtiao donuts for breakfast in London, to hot-water thermoses in Paris, to Chinese-speaking concierges in Rome, global hotel brands are tuning in to the little things that make Chinese travelers feel more at ease.
Affluent Chinese are traveling as a way to check out potential new places to call home. Nothing’s more sought after in China these days than foreign residency, especially in North America, Australia, and the UK, which are perceived as stable economic environments with great educational systems for their kids. In fact, Chinese tour groups to places like Palo Alto are geared specifically to Chinese parents who want to check out the Stanford campus, as well as the multi-million-dollar homes for sale in the land of tech entrepreneurs.
Chinese from the most populous cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, are also beginning to explore what they perceive as ‘exotic’ and remote China. These are places like the far western region of Xinjiang, which is a Muslim territory with residents who look more Central Asian than Chinese. Tours of Inner Mongolia, complete with a horseback ride, a night in a traditional tent in the desert, and a meal of boiled yak meat, are starting to appeal to Chinese urbanites looking for a taste of a ‘simpler’ time.
In fact, well-heeled Chinese are increasingly looking for experiences in rural China, where they can stay on a farm and eat unprocessed food freshly harvested, as a way to reconnect with what they feel they’ve lost in all the hustle and bustle of modern life.