Chinese Tourists Export a Mix of Cash and Brash

Times Staff Writer

The curious incident of the pig's-head meal vouchers and the anthem-singing sit-in offers a cautionary tale about what can happen when the world's most populous nation suddenly sends forth the globe's biggest tour group.

At a casino hotel in Malaysia's Genting Highlands last summer, 300-plus members of a Chinese tour group were issued meal coupons bearing somewhat crude illustrations indicating that they ate pork, unlike most people in that predominantly Muslim country.

The tourists, however, reportedly interpreted the drawings as a message that Chinese were pigs, leading to a lobby sit-in and an impassioned rendition of China's national anthem. The standoff was broken up only with the arrival of police canine units.

Cultural misunderstandings are just some of the possible pitfalls as millions of increasingly affluent Chinese tourists head overseas, shopping lists in hand, to see the world. Often loud, nouveaux riches and increasingly on your doorstep, the newly minted tourists show anew how the rising aspirations of China's 1.3 billion people are fundamentally reshaping the world.

For a Beijing keen to recast its global image, high-spending tourists are also an increasingly useful way to offset trade imbalances and blunt outdated perceptions of China as a nation of grim-faced cadres.

For decades after the 1949 Communist takeover, the idea of traveling overseas for pleasure was anathema, a sign you were ideologically suspect, even a possible spy. "I couldn't imagine a trip like this a couple of decades ago," said Han Yushu, 63, a retired teacher heading for Europe, his first trip outside China. "Life is really improving."

About 32 million Chinese ventured overseas last year, a sixfold increase over 1997 and a fiftyfold increase since 1985, with 100 million projected annually by 2020.

"The potential is just enormous," said Jia Yiyuan, outbound deputy general manager with China Comfort Travel, a Beijing-based travel agency. "Some people say Venice is sinking because of all the Chinese tourists."

Although most remain close to home, a growing number are venturing to Europe, Latin America and Africa. Their priorities are also different. Even as they scrimp on rooms and food, they're shopping aggressively for luxury bags, watches and designer clothes to the tune of $987 per overseas visitor, more than the Japanese, making them the world leaders, according to a survey by ACNielsen and Tax Free World Assn.

In keeping with China's near-obsession with control, outbound tourist flows are guided through a series of "approved destination status" agreements with foreign countries. These require Chinese to use a select number of pre-approved travel agents.

Initially difficult to get, destination approval has now been won by more than 115 countries. Beijing continues to use this "privilege" strategically, however. When Premier Wen Jiabao traveled to Fiji in early April, destination approval was among the cookies offered the tiny South Pacific nation in return for not recognizing Taiwan diplomatically. Tourism incentives were also used recently to wrench Grenada and Dominica from Taiwan's diplomatic orbit.

More broadly, Beijing is using tourism to win diplomatic points with resource-rich African and Latin American nations keen to diversify their economies, in line with its gradual expansion of global power.

"Chinese tourists can be a real contributor to the global economy and world peace," said Zhang Guangrui, director of tourist research at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "China needs the world, and the world needs China."

Prominently missing from the approved list is the United States, less a function of Beijing foot-dragging than restrictive U.S. visa policies after the Sept. 11 attacks. Washington has also balked at channeling business through preferred travel agents, which it terms market interference. Chinese still tour the U.S. on official, student and family-visit visas, but these are more difficult to get.

"This is the third time since 2001 I applied for a U.S. visa," said Wang Xibing, a 70-year-old retired worker in the chemical industry, emerging from the American Embassy in Beijing. "I finally got it, but it's a bit late. I wanted to travel with my wife, who died last year. America is good in other ways, but not this one."

As recently as the 1980s, Beijing was more concerned with safeguarding political control and conserving hard currency. Now, however, China has a new problem: huge, politically sensitive trade surpluses and a reputation for stealing jobs. That has made tourists prone to emptying their wallets the world over increasingly useful. The lure of profits is also inspiring more foreigners to learn Mandarin and strengthen cultural links, moves that promise payoffs decades into the future.

Beijing's willingness to let 'em fly away reflects its growing confidence that most will return. The prospect of more Chinese visiting Europe and America has also given the status-conscious nation great "face" by reversing the long-standing pattern of rich whites visiting "backward" China.

"Chinese tourism can also do a lot for global good, helping poverty if a significant share goes to Africa," Geoffrey Lipman, a special advisor to the U.N. World Tourism Organization, said at a recent conference in Beijing. "China very much sees itself as a player on the global stage."

China recently surpassed Japan as the Asian nation with the most overseas tourists, prompting more hotels worldwide to include Chinese programming, decorate rooms in "auspicious" red shades, relocate beds away from windows in the interest of feng shui and serve rice porridge for breakfast.

Mexico is hoping to attract 100,000 Chinese visitors by 2010, a ninefold increase over current levels, and South Africa hopes for a twelvefold increase to 2.5 million by 2010. Thailand is already welcoming 1 million a year and looking for more. Elsewhere, prim Singapore has dropped its casino ban to compete, and Lonely Planet Publications recently translated four English-language guides into Chinese, a company first.

As with many issues involving China and the world, however, tourism represents a double-edged sword. Even as more money flows in, foreign countries remain wary of Chinese leaving their tours to live and work illegally. Malaysia is reportedly unable to trace 50,000 Chinese who entered the country last year; some were said to have departed on forged passports, others working as laborers or even "noon brides," or prostitutes.

Eager to earn the money without the political problems, host countries have devised numerous strategies. "We like school groups," said Toshinobu Ikubo, Beijing director of the Japan National Tourist Organization. "They tend to spend more, and they never escape."

Countries often require prospective tourists to post large deposits, endure in-depth interviews and show evidence of credible employment. They also hold tour agencies responsible, blacklisting companies with too many defections.

"This is a big headache, and it's just not fair," said Jia of China Comfort Travel. "They turn us into policemen."

Tourists are sometimes dubbed a nation's cultural ambassadors. In China's case, however, cackling loudly, tossing chicken bones in restaurants and walking around hotel lobbies in pajamas can leave some rather undiplomatic impressions. "Vientiane braces for Chinese hordes ... of noisy, spitting tourists," blared a recent headline in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, referring to the capital city of Laos.

Wary of the bad press, the Chinese government, tour agencies and concerned individuals have tried to school outgoing tourists. "Spitting, slurping food and jumping queues merely disgust people at home," the state-run New China News Agency warned last month. "But it is intolerable in other countries."

Overseas Chinese are among the loudest critics. Hong Kong residents bridled when local papers ran photos of a mainland mother helping her child urinate against a wall of the newly opened Hong Kong Disneyland accompanied by reports that sleeping middle-age Chinese men were hogging the benches.

"I'm very concerned as a fellow Chinese," said Hong Kong-born Lee Kai Hung, a London-based businessman who wrote a guide with tips such as "Don't ask foreign women how old they are" and "Don't clean your ears in public."

"Chinese in general talk vigorously and so loud that we tend to think they are angry when they're not," Japan's ASK magazine advised in a recent article on welcoming Chinese tourists.

Sociologists say the cultural disconnect can go beyond behavioral habits to encompass a world view. China's highly developed sense of "in group" and "out group," they say, means Chinese often do far more than Western counterparts for friends, and far less for strangers.

"Chinese are rude to people they don't know," said Wolfgang Georg Arlt, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Stralsund, Germany. "Unfortunately, when it comes to tourism, you don't know most of the people you meet."

A recent study by Arlt's Outbound Tourism Research Project on Chinese overseas shopping patterns notes that although some Chinese inadvertently break social rules, others do so consciously. "You'll see people flouting 'no smoking' signs at luxury outlets knowing that few will complain when they're spending $10,000," Arlt said. "There's also a feeling that 'foreigners have been trampling on us for 200 years, and now it's our turn.' "

China's early travelers also tend to focus on superlatives, experts say, with Moscow's Red Square and London's Trafalgar dismissed as "not nearly as big as Tiananmen." They tend to be unimpressed with several-hundred-year-old Japanese and European buildings, seen as crumbling upstarts with little charm through the prism of China's 5,000-year history.

For many, shopping isn't just a side activity, it's a central reason for traveling. And telling friends back home how many places you've been to is often as important as absorbing foreign culture, notes the Outbound Tourism Research Project.

"We were only in some countries a couple of hours," said Guo Lianqing, 65, a retired teacher just back from a tour of nine European countries in 14 days. "It was a bit exhausting. But the presents we brought back gave us big face with our friends."

For many overseas travelers, sampling the local cuisine is a key part of their experience. Chinese, however, tend to want all Chinese all the time, even if it's really bad food made for foreign taste buds. "No, we didn't try any foreign food," Guo said.

"Chinese tourists really aren't interested in Italian food," Federica Gremo, a manager with Italy's Selene Tours, said incredulously. "That's not great for us, since one of the best things we have is our cuisine."

At the offices of China Comfort Travel, a group of tourists in their 60s and 70s recently got a pre-trip briefing from guide Kevin Hsiao. "If you like pickles, take them with you," Hsiao said. "German breakfasts are good, Italian breakfasts are bad."

China Comfort says it would like to offer similar tours to the United States, a move hampered by U.S. policy. "More and more Chinese are out in the world spending money," said Jia, the agency official. "We say to America, 'Why don't you welcome us too?' "

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Times staff writers Chris Kraul in Mexico City, Carol J. Williams in Miami, Yin Lijin in Beijing, Naoko Nishiwaki and Hisako Ueno in Tokyo, Jinna Park in Seoul and Dinda Jouhana in Jakarta, Indonesia, and special correspondent Tsai Ting-I in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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