The United States is missing out on a global tourist boom. The number of trips global travelers made increased 7 percent in 2017, yet visits to the United States dropped 4 percent. That translates to the United States losing out on about $2.7 billion last year, or about $4.6 billion since the November 2016 elections.
Leading the pack in global tourists is China: in 2012, the Chinese overtook Americans and Germans as the world’s highest international tourism spenders, with 83 million people spending a record $102 billion on international tourism.
At a time when American voters are increasingly frustrated with China’s egregious stealing of American wealth through current trade policies or intellectual property theft, and media are reporting the “escalation of a trade war” between the United States and China, we should consider a significantly profitable means of “balancing the scales” with Beijing: tourism.
Media have noted China’s meteoric rise as an exporter of tourists. More than 100 million Chinese annually pack their bags to travel abroad. By 2021, Chinese tourists will spend $429 billion abroad, according to a report by CLSA. All of this, yet only about 5 percent of Chinese have a passport! We are soon in for a world overflowing with Chinese tourists.
Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), recently told the South China Morning Post that “Chinese tourists are the most powerful single source of change in the tourism industry.” He added that there were 135 million international departures from China in 2016, a number that has been increasing in double digits since 2010.
“The potential of the Chinese market is far greater, because only 6 percent of Chinese people own a passport. So we expect 200 million Chinese to travel abroad in just a few years’ time,” said Rifai. For those who have any experience with Chinese tourists, this is a somewhat concerning development — there are many widely publicized anecdotes regarding their boorish behavior.
A Long History of Tourist Misbehavior
“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad.” So said Mark Twain, reflecting on his experiences as a tourist in the Mediterranean and the Holy Land.
Having lived for three years in Thailand — one of the most popular destinations for the Chinese — I’ve witnessed the Chinese assume this role with an acute proficiency. Worse than the gaudy hats, sun umbrellas, and selfie sticks was the unique kind of physical aggression I once received at the hands of grumpy, elderly Chinese women at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, who pushed me around like a pinball.
Chinese tourists’ bad behavior is notorious. As one Vice article observed, “outside the Louvre in Paris, there’s a sign in Mandarin which tells visitors not to defecate in the surrounding grounds. This sign is only written in Mandarin Chinese.” Among offenses catalogued in Thailand are blatant disregard for Thai traffic laws, littering, spitting, cutting in line, allowing their children to defecate in public, and general disregard for Thai customs.
Chinese tourists also made international headlines after four of them pitched hot water and noodles on a Thai flight attendant. Hong Kong Airlines has even instructed its cabin crew in kung fu in order to respond to drunk passengers flying to and from the mainland. Another Chinese national visiting the ancient Egyptian temple at Luxor carved “Ding Jinhao was here” into a 3,500-year-old building. A manager at the Tarsier Conservation Area in the Philippines told a reporter in 2014:
The disregard for regulations and lack of respect for the environment have been appalling. Most of the [Chinese] tourists I have accompanied have littered beaches and forests without a second thought. Some turned a deaf ear to requests not to interact with endangered species such as the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier, on Bohol island, in the Philippines. Chinese are selfish and only care for their photos. We often have trouble with them, so we decided to keep their tours farther from the animals. They think nature is just a backdrop for selfies. They do as they please, not as they’re told.
Of Course, We Americans Are Rude, Too
As unprecedented as these anecdotes seem to be in their egregiousness, the Chinese are not alone in bearing a reputation for misbehavior abroad. Americans are perennially singled out as notoriously naughty tourists, and some surveys have actually found them to be the worst!
Apart from us, the Brits and Germans also have a bad reputation. One thinks in particular of British football hooligans wreaking havoc across European cities, or overweight German men sporting far-too-revealing swimwear. Some analysts have argued that countries with larger gross domestic products will naturally have more tourists, which will inevitably damage their image. This suggests that perhaps the rising angst over Chinese tourists is more symptomatic of the PRC’s growing economic prosperity than of anything uniquely problematic about Chinese tourists.
Moreover, the Chinese government is not ignorant of these problems, and even senior PRC officials have commented on the controversy. Deputy Premier Wang Yang bemoaned the “uncivilized behaviour” of those Chinese tourists who had marred the nation’s image. Yang blamed the “poor quality and breeding” of many of his countrymen. President Xi Jinping in turn urged Chinese tourists to “not leave water bottles everywhere. Do not damage coral reefs. Eat less instant noodles and more local seafood.”
A few years ago, Beijing-based newspaper Global Times reported that the government had created a blacklist of Chinese citizens who had “failed to observe public order.” Those on the list were banned from taking flights abroad for at least three years as punishment for their misbehavior.
In 2013, in response to these kinds of incidents, the Chinese National Tourism Agency posted guidelines for travelling overseas. That directive asserted: “Tourists shall observe public order and respect social morality in tourism activities, respect local customs, cultural traditions and religious beliefs, care for tourism resources, protect the ecological environment, and abide by the norms of civilized tourist behavior.”
An American Economic Opportunity
Regardless of whether Chinese tourists represent an unprecedented level of vulgarity or are simply emblematic of a universal, perennial problem of which all nations are guilty, they represent a significant source of wealth for the recipients of their foreign travels. Thailand, for example, is the top destination for Chinese tourists, which has been a windfall for their economy. The Japanese rejoice in what they call the “explosive buying” proclivities of Chinese tourists, as do the Vietnamese and Singaporeans.
Moreover, Chinese tourists are still the highest-spending visitors to the United States, even though they trail in overall numbers behind visitors from Canada, Mexico, Britain, and Japan. It’s time for us to consider ways we can reap the largesse available from Chinese tourists and their wallets.
Some are already doing this. U.S. retailers are increasingly relying on mobile payments and apps to “increase sales to the world’s most prodigious group of spenders,” namely, the Chinese. Indeed, in February alone, 6.5 million Chinese travelled abroad for Chinese New Year, with America ranked as a top destination. During that period, Chinese tourists “drove roughly 9 percent of total US sales of the categories they traditionally favour – clothing, accessories and electronics, according to the US Census Bureau.”
To draw from this economic demographic, more American retailers are now accepting mobile payment through Alipay and WeChat Pay, China’s dominant online payment services. As a new Nielsen report noted, “nearly all Chinese travelers (91 percent) would be more willing to shop and spend at overseas merchants that accepted Chinese mobile payments.”
Let’s Do This Judiciously
The trick, of course, is to limit Chinese tourist misbehavior and ensure their massive tour groups don’t overrun the destinations most popular with Americans. I certainly don’t want Chinese tourists overrunning my town. There are ways of doing this — one is for federal, state, or local government to single out specific destinations as particularly “Chinese-friendly.”
Cambodia is already doing this, in places like Sihanoukville, which has become a Chinese Las Vegas of sorts. Some areas of the United States and its territories, particularly those suffering years of economic stagnation or decline, might be willing to accept the tradeoffs of such a program. I can think of one in particular: Puerto Rico, which suffered tremendous damage during 2017’s Hurricane Maria.
Much of the island’s tourism sector remains open for business. With Puerto Rico in economic crisis, are they really willing to be picky about their visitors? Why not create special incentives to lure Chinese money to Puerto Rico, and other similar destinations?
Given the behavior of Chinese tourists cited above, we might cringe at such an economic policy, but it represents a legitimate alternative strategy for drawing wealth back to America. Indeed, such a potential comes at a time of great controversy over what many economic experts claim are prospective U.S. tariffs on China that will be “lose-lose” for the American economy.
Moreover, there’s nothing preventing us from creating incentives to direct visitors to particular locations — perhaps places where the potential of huge influxes of Chinese money are worth the inconvenience of tourist boorishness. If our goal is to secure Chinese dollars that are rightly ours, and find a way to address what economics are calling China’s “rise to economic superpower status,” it’s an approach worth considering.