Temporary signage at entrance to Bangkok's legendary Royal Hotel to welcome tour groups
BY PHILIP J CUNINGHAM
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 movingnecessitates 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 USdue 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 orthe 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
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
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
Chineseindividuals 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 a 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 Dailyon 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