What’s the Deal with Chinese Tourism

Traditionally, Chinese love travelling in tour groups, but going solo is growing fast

0316_WHATS-THE-DEAL-WITHAs the country’s economy continues to grow, though not quite at the same warp-speed as before, ever larger flocks of Chinese decide to leave their towns and villages to travel to almost every corner of the world. In the past it seemed there was only one way to do it, with an established tour guide. Anything from ten to ten-dozen Chinese eager to see more of the world, would bedeck themselves in matching baseball caps (even t-shirts) to hastily follow a flag-wielding travel guide at breakneck speeds. Today they continue to use this oh-so-80s method to navigate themselves through historic architecture and marvelous shopping malls, all why having any semblance of independence neutered. But why are the Chinese so obsessed with this crowded mode of travel, which to so many seems such a bind and a bore? After all, isn’t hell, as Sartre said, other people?

Never has foreign travel been so convenient and available for China’s burgeoning middle-class. In 2015, 120 million Chinese traveled abroad, up 12 percent compared on 2014, with 104 billion US dollars spent—the numbers are mind boggling. Among the most popular destinations for outbound tourism were Korea, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Austria, and America. Such nations set up Chinese signs, information websites, and magazines, all to aid these wanderers from the Middle Kingdom. Korea has been nurturing Chinese-speaking guides for years. And this past Chinese New Year, for the first time, the number of outbound tourists exceeded domestic ones, by a good 10 percent too. Travel abroad is trendy at last.

Some people just want to yield to the firm words of a dominatrix and be told what to do, never needing to make a decision. This is, after all, how so many Chinese grow up anyway.

Group tours with agencies bear a notorious reputation, often described as deceptive, forcing clients to buy crazily over-priced foreign products, all on an insanely tight schedule.But independent travel, or Ziyou Xing, is beginning to make its mark. Going back 30 years, the group tour was almost the sole way of traveling abroad. In 2003, Mainland Chinese were allowed to go to Hong Kong freely without signing up with travel agencies for the first time. The term Ziyou Xing came about, meaning free tour or self-guided tour. Soon, the rest of the world eased procedures for Chinese applying for visas, and the self-guided tour became a novelty and mark of modern travel. For the last ten years, it has kept up 30 percent growth every year. According to the National Tourism Administration, 80 million (out of 120 million) people chose a self-guided tour last year—a third still couldn’t resist the sexy allure of flags and baseball caps.

It is not difficult to imagine how inconvenient and troublesome it is to travel with 50-odd people. You get stuck with standardized schedules, accommodation, food, destinations, and even clothes. It is massively confining, claustrophobic even, but many claim it is what they want—safety in numbers applies. Some people just want to yield to the firm words of a dominatrix and be told what to do, never needing to make a decision. This is, after all, how so many Chinese grow up anyway. Group tours are considered particularly ideal for the older generation, who neither speak English nor are quite so savvy as to equip themselves with the lastest apps, electronic maps, and other technological accoutrements. Young people, several shades more intrepid, instead choose independent travel, with all the freedom, randomness, and unexpected challenges it entails.

But this is not always the case. For many reasons, many under 35 still prefer the old way. Zoe Liu gained her master degree in Hong Kong and speaks fluent English. Last summer, she went on a group tour with her younger brother to Japan. “Although I know they [tour agencies] cheat people and it won’t be fun, it’s fast and convenient. I went impulsively and didn’t have time to plan,” she said. “Plus, I can’t speak Japanese. I think it’s better to go with them for the first time, then go on my own the next,” she added. Also, the young ones tend to join groups when they are traveling with their families, especially the middle-age and seniors.

Of course, Chinese travel has not, thus far, been great for the nation’s image. They say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. But this seldom applies to the Chinese. No matter where we are, all too often we act the same as when we are in our little villages. We spit, throw garbage, pee on the street, show no respect for local culture and laws, and graffiti on anything we can.The lawless life in China has become a habit. Once it forms, it’s hard to change. The correction will take several generations of time, but maybe foreign travel will help.