Tuesday, July 5, 2016


                                                            (first published in China-US Focus, April 14, 2016)
                        Unraveling  Travel

Temporary signage at entrance to Bangkok's legendary Royal Hotel to welcome tour groups

TOURISM these days is bigger than ever thanks to advances in 

transportation, infrastructure, and the spike in disposable 
income from formerly isolated and impoverished countries 

such as China. Jets and busses are putting people in motion, 

and all that people moving necessitates lots of food, beverage, 

lodging, and entertainment. The China tourism boom is a boon

to many an economy, but the mammoth influx of people 

engaged in non-essential travel is not an unalloyed good, 

for it puts wear and tear on the environment and takes its toll 

on locals. Even with welcome sums of money flowing into 

tourist destinations, there is inevitable dislocation, crowding, 
and cross-cultural breakdown.

The unraveling nature of travel was evident during a recent trip

to Thailand where mainland Chinese are now the single largest 

group of foreign tourists, numbering some 8 million in 2015 

and on track to exceed that by a million more in 2016. 

The rapid increase and steady influx of travelers from China is

by and large welcomed with open arms in the hopes that it will

invigorate Thailand’s sluggish, tourist-dependent economy, 
which has seen a slow-down in arrivals from Europe and the 

US due to concerns about safety and the political discomfort of 
dictatorial rule. Chinese, who now account for more than 

one-fourth of all tourists in the country, seem less bothered by 

Thailand's undemocratic side.

The numbers flying in from the big neighbor to the north are 

truly impressive. The once idle old airport of Don Muang is 

roaring with charter flights zooming back and forth and the 

traffic of discount carriers between China and Thailand is 

soaring, though the results on the ground are decidedly mixed.
For one, group tours, the most common conveyance of tourists 
from the middle kingdom to Thailand, tend to play into the 
tight-fisted hands of a few big players and offer limited trickle 
down benefit for ordinary Thais. Taxi drivers, for example, are 
cut out of loop when jumbo busses do most of the people 
hauling, and small to midsize hotels outside the confines of a 
narrow Sino-Thai network of favored bulk booking destinations
see little additional traffic. Nor do gift stores or established 
eateries, let alone street vendors, have much chance of 
snagging tourist dollars when tour companies steer their 
charges to typically over-priced emporiums and entertainment 
venues, complete with Chinese language signage, specifically 
designed to please and fleece Chinese tourists.

For example, the Royal Hotel, located in the heart of old 
Bangkok near the old palace grounds, used to be a favorite for 
individual travelers, Thai and tourist alike. Now the entrance 
is perpetually blocked by a fleet of growling tour busses while 
the dining room and lobby get reconfigured several times daily
to serve as a quick roundtable buffet for bulk tourists on the go.
Because tourists are bussed in just for lunch, or at the most, a 
quick overnight, there is inadequate time for meaning human 
contact, let alone time to educate newbie travelers 
on no-smoking rules or the finer points of hotel etiquette.
One need only look at China’s economy, diminished but still 
strong despite recent struggles, to realize that with the uptick 
in fast money, a favorable exchange rate and notions of 
national prosperity, leisure travel will almost certainly follow. 
As real estate-derived wealth empowers the rich and rising 
salaries create disposable income for the burgeoning middle 
class, vacation travel with mass characteristics is a market 
begging to be exploited. 

It is commercial undertaking, first and foremost, one with 

immediate benefit to China's big airline firms and booking 

agents, such as China's C-trip, which partners with a Chinese 

insurance company to extract flight insurance as part of the 

deal. But the curiosity to see something of the world outside 

China is as real as the vision of being catered to, so even mass 

travel has its edifying aspect. 

Tourism offers a chance for ordinary people to self-educate 

while being catered to in an exotic setting. Short-lived though 

it may be, it's an escape from China, a rare opportunity to 

contemplate and experience a world unmediated by Chinese 

habit, custom, law and propaganda. 

Although mass tourism on a tight schedule only offers a 
glimpse of the outside world, for some it will whet the appetite 

for more, inspiring individual excursions in the future. In the 
meantime, the mass tour format works, not just economically, 
but also socially because it provides a moveable Chinese 
language bubble within which less-than-cosmopolitan tourists 

can socialize and share the experience on Chinese terms. 

Because optional travel is price sensitive, some incredible 
bargains loom for the traveler willing to put up with the little 
indignities of being herded around as part of a budget tour. 
Even a so-called “zero-dollar” tour is not a free lunch—lavish 
spending in the over-priced shops of travel company cronies is 
an unspoken part of the deal—but the fact is, jet age 
conveyances, coupled with low fuel prices, have brought the 
joys and pitfalls of international travel to tens of millions of 
ordinary folk.

The buffet feeding frenzies, crowd-stopping selfie exploits, 
bad manners, and lapses of decorum among mainland 
travelers have left a trail of complaints in the wake of mass 
budget travel. This has not escaped the notice of netizens in popular 
destinations such as Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong. Only a 
fraction of the excesses get covered in the mainstream press
—just because something is outrageous doesn’t make it 
newsworthy—but one also has to take into account a built-in 
reluctance to offend China on the part of many regional 
neighbors. The Bangkok Post, fighting its own battles 
domestically,  has declined to give serious coverage to this 
topic, though the Thai language press is somewhat more 
cavalier and willing to "tease" China.

There are various reasons for this. Negative political coverage 
of China, or giving voice to China critics, does not go unnoticed 
by officials in Beijing, and quite often can invite diplomatic 
censure or outright economic retribution. One need only follow
the travels of the Dalai Lama--circumscribed by China 
inasmuch the diplomatic heat goes up every time he is granted 
an official visit somewhere--to realize that Chinese officials are 
hypersensitive to things that seem inconsequential to most 
everyone else.

More troubling for China's neighbors, the last year or two 
has seen an increase in efforts by Chinese security forces to
obtain cross-border "justice" through forced 
repatriations, and even outright abductions. For example, five ethnic 
Chinese individuals associated with the Causeway Bay 
Bookstore in Hong Kong, known for its salacious, 
sensationalist tracts on China, disappeared in short order late 
last year, only to emerge in the mainland as part of "an ongoing 
investigation." This included Swedish passport holder who 
disappeared from his condo in Pattaya, a beach resort in 
Thailand, only to show up on national television in China 
confessing to a litany of misdeeds. 

The second reason for pulling punches when it comes to 
criticizing China, especially when airing complaints about the 
vast waves of mass tourists is economic: money is hard to come 
by these days and China has money. With tourism, there is the 
palpable fear of scaring away the goose that lays the golden egg, 
even if the goose is messing up the property. While only a 
fraction of put-upon locals stand to benefit financially, local 
power holders and influential travel agencies have 
a vested interest in exploiting the trade for all its worth.

The place where resistance to the tsunami of Chinese tourism 
is most readily detected is of course the Internet, where tirades
against the golden hordes win countless clicks and viral 
videos illustrate for all to see the latest faux pas or failure of 
communication. The ubiquity of smart phones makes possible 
a vivid record of touristic excess, sometimes outrageous, 
sometimes hilarious, often both.

The heyday of American package tours and Japanese junkets 
is largely over, and for better or worse, the worst of it went 
untelevised. In today’s travel ecosystem, excesses can go viral, 
and thus global, on social networks. Of course one can 
find evidence of unruly Russians, cliquish Koreans or drunken 
Yanks or Brits or individuals of any number of nationalities, 
but none seem to capture the imagination of the media quite as 
much as China tourist does. 

Sheer numbers have something to do with this, but there is also 
some residual Cold War thinking at play. China, though 
communist mainly in name, and name alone, has long been, 
and remains, the ultimate “other.” Given its power, size and 
global footprint, it is subject to special scrutiny. Prejudicial 
coverage abounds, and things Chinese are a popular 
target for media pile-ons.

The Guangzhou Daily recently wrote on the topic, decrying the 
“demonization” of Chinese tourists, offering counter-factuals 
about several viral incidents that were either dated or 
taken out of context. While acknowledging that it is inevitable 
that some “unpleasant stories should emerge” when annual 
traffic out of China is over 120 million trips abroad, the 
state-run paper took a defensive stance on the topic, asserting 
that Chinese tourists have become “more aware of respecting 
local customs and behaving themselves.” Finally, the op-ed, 
republished in English in the China Daily on March 28, 2016, 
sternly reminds readers that touristic abuse is a two-way 
street: “Foreign business people seeking to fleece Chinese 

travelers will finally be punished by market laws and lose the 

world’s fastest growing source of tourists.”

Innocents and ostentatious travelers abroad have long been a
subject of envy, amazement and resentment. The vagaries of 
national prosperity have, over time, opened up global travel to 
middle classes unaccustomed or uninterested in the discreet 
ways of diplomats and seasoned exiles. The resultant cultural 
clash has been a staple of humor and human-interest tales 
since the times of Henry James. Americans abroad have been 
the butt of many jokes since the 19th century. Been there, 
done that. Ditto for the British. 

In more recent decades, newly prosperous Japan, Taiwan and 
Korea enjoyed their day in the sun as a prime source of unruly, 
profligate tourists. The times change, but the tune remains 

much the same. Tourists are almost always appreciated 

economically but cultural tensions arise, especially when the 

numbers are overwhelming. In the long run, tourism is a force 

for peace. Friendships are forged, cultural differences are 

observed, confronted and taken into consideration and the 

transformative power of travel enlightens, just as it always has.

-Philip J Cunningham
- See more at: http://www.chinausfocus.com/culture-history/unraveling-travel/#sthash.Lgkbu9V2.dpuf