Hey big spender: the rise and rise of the Chinese tourist

About 120 million Chinese people are expected to travel abroad this year and to spend billions

It starts with a pennant flag held aloft by a scarily enthusiastic twenty-something tour guide, skilled in speaking high-tempo Mandarin without pausing for breath for long periods as she steers a slightly bemused but cheerful group across the concourse in front of Cologne cathedral. Or to watch the Lion Dance in Kildare Village at Chinese New Year. Or through the stores at the Grove mall in Los Angeles. Or through the Golden Temple in Bangkok.

Is there a more powerful international image of China’s opening up and its economic rise – recent events notwithstanding – than the sight of the country’s nationals waving selfie sticks and carrying luxury brand shopping bags as they visit the retail emporiums and cultural high-spots of the world?

There is a growing hysteria about Chinese tourism, similar perhaps to the euphoria about Japanese tourists in the 1970s and 1980s. Even as economic growth in China slows to 7 per cent, the enthusiasm in the world's most populous nation for foreign travel is frenetic.

Last year, Chinese tourists took 109 million trips overseas, 20 per cent more than in 2013. These are baby steps, as China is still, in many ways, a developing country. While 70 per cent of those trips were to Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan, the numbers heading to other destinations, including Ireland, is growing fast.


According to a report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, 174 million Chinese tourists are expected to shell out €243 billion a year by 2019 compared with the 109 million who spent €151 billion last year. (Irish GDP was about €214 billion in 2013, to give you an idea of how much that is.)

The growth rates are staggering – in 2000, there were just 10 million Chinese outbound tourists. Some 59 per cent of those travelling abroad were doing it for the first time. Along with buying an imported car or an apartment in a Central Business District in your provincial capital, foreign travel is the ultimate status symbol in China.

Set against the figure of 109 million, the 40,000 Chinese who visited Ireland last year looks like a small figure, but Niall Gibbons, chief executive of Tourism Ireland, points out how that is a 122 per cent increase on the figure of 18,000 two years ago, and he is confident that the Government target of 50,000 by 2017 is on track.

During his Chinese New Year address last year, president Xi Jinping had prominently displayed the photograph of himself kicking a football at Croke Park. Such PR coups, along with Riverdance's enduring reputation, do a lot to boost Ireland's standing in the minds of would-be Chinese tourists.

“China is the biggest outbound market in the world now. There are about 120 million Chinese travelling abroad this year,” Gibbons said in an interview at the Irish embassy in Beijing last month, as he headed up a delegation to China to try and tap this booming market.

Generally, the first priority is getting a direct flight, which should help encourage more visitors to make the trip to Ireland, and there are reports that efforts to bring this in are making progress.

As it stands, travelling between China and Ireland normally involves stopping over in Europe, via BA, KLM, Finnair or Air France, or stopping in the Middle East, then taking a connection.

Direct flights need to be commercially viable, and it's not clear whether flights would depart from Beijing or Shanghai, but efforts are ongoing.

The question asked most often by Chinese friends is whether they can use their visa in Ireland as well as Spain or Italy or France. At the moment, they cannot. The Schengen agreement means that Chinese citizens can visit the countries of mainland Europe on one visa, but not Ireland. For that they need a separate visa, which grants entry to both Ireland and the UK thanks to a visa waiver programme introduced in 2011.

London is only the 22nd most popular destination for Chinese tourists, but based on anecdotal evidence from a recent visit, where I heard Mandarin Chinese as often as a cockney accent, the numbers for this year could be higher. During a visit to Arsenal's Emirates stadium there were plenty of Chinese tourists in evidence, while the Harry Potter exhibition near Watford also had its share of fans from China.

New York still has the biggest number of visitors, however, with 646,000 Chinese nationals visiting in 2013.

In mainland Europe, where the euro makes things so much cheaper for Chinese visitors, the influx is a sight to behold.

In Cologne cathedral this month, there were several groups of Beijingers. China is officially secular, so for many Chinese people, visiting cathedrals as a tourist site is the only way they are ever likely to go see a church.

There are some spectacular stories of bad behaviour, of queue-jumping, littering or smoking in inappropriate places.

In China, “talking loudly” is often cited as a major transgression of international etiquette, but I can’t really recall this being a major problem with Chinese people, though perhaps that is also a cultural issue.

There are signs in some hotel rooms asking guests not to use the kettle to boil noodles but generally hoteliers and shop owners are learning how to become more Chinese-friendly.

Some of these incidents happen at home in China, where domestic tourism is booming. A scenic attraction in Xiandu, in Zhejiang in the east, was forced to cancel its wind chime festival after tourists stole hundreds of the devices hanging from trees that formed part of the display, according to local newspaper Qianjiang Evening News.

But it’s the overseas stories that make the headlines and this is unfortunate as they feed into negative stereotypes about Chinese travellers. But they do happen. Here is just a small selection.

In May, Wang Sheng and Zhang Yan were somewhat irate when they didn't get their desired seats on a flight from Bangkok to Nanjing, so they threw instant noodles and boiling water at the flight attendant and threatened to blow up the plane. Needless to say they won't be allowed on a flight out of China any time soon, having been blacklisted by the government.

In December, a man in his 50s on a Xiamen Air flight from Hangzhou to Chengdu opened the emergency exit door as the aircraft was about to take off, looking for a bit of fresh air.

Another Chinese tourist, a 61-year-old farmer, was fined after he lit up a cigarette in the bathroom on a Cathay Pacific flight to Bangkok.

In 2013, a 15-year-old tourist carved "Ding Jinhao was here" in Chinese on a stone sculpture in the 3,500-year-old Luxor Temple in Egypt.

Thai model Duangjai Phichitamphon posted a striking video on Facebook in March, ranting about the bad manners of Chinese tourists. She shows the scene at Jeju airport in South Korea where people are waiting to get their tax refunds, and the livid Phichitamphon shows a sea of people around her, shuffling towards the desk.

“Not only did they cut before us. Not only did they step over our feet. Not only did they pull my hair. Now they push us out of our queue.”

After her outburst went viral she took it down, but not before it had been copied from Facebook, which is banned in China, and distributed on Chinese social media with helpful Mandarin subtitles.

There were some predictably furious reactions from the trolls, but these incidents of bad behaviour do prompt genuine bouts of soul-searching in China, and this is one reason why the stereotype of a boorish tourist from the mainland is so unfortunate.

Most Chinese people are terribly embarrassed by their poor reputation overseas, and say that people who behave badly like this abroad, behave similarly badly at home.

On the flight from Beijing to Paris this month, an elderly woman from the northeast of China struggled with the seatbelt and, deeply embarrassed, asked for my help. She could not have been more gracious, offering me water and politely asking questions, and trying to make sure I had enough room.

Another woman on the flight, also from Shandong province, had never been outside of China before. For her, the trip to France was a dream come true, something she could never have imagined growing up in the 1960s when China was sealed off from the rest of the world.

A Chinese friend pointed out once how most of her countrypeople still have intense poverty in living memory. Fang, a 31-year-old highly sophisticated university graduate who has studied overseas, can remember how Chinese New Year was one of the few times of year there was meat, and how a piece of fruit was a highly prized gift from a relative.

For many Chinese people, the chance to go abroad is like space travel, suddenly becoming a possibility. There is a deep-rooted curiosity about the world outside and now for the first time, there is a possibility to assuage that interest.

Thailand is a particular favourite destination for Chinese tourists, especially since a Hangover-style movie called Lost in Thailand dramatised the antics of a pair of Chinese men in the southeast Asian nation and drove visitor numbers through the roof.

The Thais are welcoming of the huge number of tourists, but the country is horrified by some of the antics of the tourists. A picture of a young girl peeing in the grounds of Bangkok’s Grand Palace, whom netizens immediately said was Chinese, caused a major outcry. Then there were reports of tourists kicking a sacred temple bell. It’s a tough one for the Thais, who rely on tourism for 8.5 per cent of gross domestic product. Last year about 4.6 million Chinese visited Thailand, with the average tourist spending €150 a day.

The most obvious place where this rise in tourist numbers is leading to social pressures is in Hong Kong.

Tensions between Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, and the mainland have been exacerbated by the often appalling behaviour of visitors from China.

Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China, is ethnically the same and both essentially speak the same language, even if the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects are very different.

As it borders China, Hong Kong attracts millions of mainland tourists. At the Peak Tram stop in the Central district, a funicular which takes you to the summit of Victoria Peak – the high point on Hong Kong island – to enjoy one of the world's great views, the language is a mixture of Chinese dialects.

A wizened looking older man in a sleeveless vest and shorts, accompanied by a young family wearing head-to-toe Armani, clears his throat and spits as the line shuffles along. This habit, along with other ones such as loudly clearing one nostril at a time, is largely gone in Hong Kong, something of which Hong Kongers are very proud.

But it’s more than these shuddering expectorations that are breeding resentment. City residents blame northern visitors for buying essentials such as powdered baby milk formula, to the point where there is now a limit on how much milk formula one can export.

You can see mainland toddlers pooing in the amusement resort, Ocean Park, held aloft by granny, as Hong Kongers watch in disgust.

Mainlanders eat noodles on the spotless MTR subway system, prompting angry reactions from city residents who are justifiably protective of the system.

There are deeper reasons, however, behind Hong Kongers harbouring such resentment of mainland tourists. The Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the US dollar, which means that the Chinese yuan has a lot of buying power in the territory. This has led to thousands of mainlanders buying property there, driving real estate prices higher and beyond the reach of ordinary Hong Kong people.

And many Hong Kong residents chafe against direct rule from Beijing, as seen in last year’s democracy demonstrations.

Qing from Nanjing, in eastern China, is in Singapore on honeymoon. In a branch of the Chinese ICBC bank in Singapore, she tells of her experiences as a Chinese tourist in the city state.

“There are many similarities with China. When I look at the people there are a lot of similarities. We see Chinese characters everywhere and people speak Mandarin with us when they know we are from China.

“But we can still see how the culture, how they dress, the restaurants, are all different,” she says.

“Clothes are much cheaper than in China and I like the malls. And there is less of a language barrier which makes our travelling easier as neither my husband or I speak English. We like it here a lot,” she says. That affection is not always reciprocated in Singapore, where there has been an influx of immigrants from China to do menial jobs, as well some well-documented cases of the spoilt heirs of rich Chinese who come to get permanent resident (PR) status.

Rob, who is from Singapore and works for a pharmaceutical company, describes them as "rich locusts" and tells of an incident in 2012, where a young man from Sichuan, with his girlfriend in the passenger seat, sped through a red light and crashed into a taxi, killing himself, the Singaporean taxi driver and the taxi passenger, a Japanese woman. While not a tourist, his actions did little to endear Chinese people to Singaporeans.

Most Chinese in Singapore are there to work, driving buses and working in restaurants.

The message from Singaporeans is that mainland tourists are welcome, once they behave. “We welcome all foreigners, whether they are Chinese or Indian, just as long as they don’t spit or throw cigarette butts everywhere.”

Japan is also a big hit. Yes, China believes that Japan has failed to atone properly for the second World War, and believes that Japan is reviving militaristic traditions, and tensions between the two Asian giants are high.

But interest in Japan as a tourism destination is still booming, with the country reporting 2.2 million mainland Chinese arrivals last year, while local travel agency Ctrip says Korea was its most popular destination for Chinese travellers last year.

France has always had a particular allure for Chinese – perhaps it's something to do with the revolutionary history. France is expected to welcome 100 million tourists this year, with most of the growth coming from China and the rest of Asia.

The Beijing to Paris flight is perennially full and Air France is putting bigger aircraft on key routes out of China. It also plans to deploy daily Shanghai to Paris flights on Airbus 380 aircraft, up from the existing four a week.

China is Air France’s second-biggest long-haul market after the US, making up about 10 per cent of revenues from such flights.

In May, Li Jinyuan, head of an industrial conglomerate called Tiens – and clearly the kind of boss everyone would like to have – took 6,400 of his employees on holiday to France, staying in Paris and the Cote d'Azur, at a cost of more than €13 million.

In what was the largest-ever tour group to visit France, the Tiens tour group took over 140 hotels in Paris, which is nearly as many hotels as there are in total in Dublin.

Sporting special blue hats, they had a private tour of the Louvre, while Galeries Lafayette opened especially for them, and the Moulin Rouge staged a special leg-kicking extravaganza.

A lot of the tourism is all about shopping, of course. Tour operators selling packages make little on the tours themselves, but from shopping commission. They keep the cost of a package low, but then they have a deal with shop-owners in Europe where they get 20 or 30 per cent commission on sales, which on luxury items such as Rolex watches or diamonds can be a lot of money. Ireland doesn’t operate these kind of commission shopping tours.

As well as rampant consumerism, it’s also about ticking off boxes on a tour. But another phenomenon that is growing fast is the individual tourist, possibly now that visa regulations are opening up.

This is one that is far better suited to Ireland, as the numbers are smaller – we lack the infrastructure for mass tourism that Macau or Hong Kong can offer.

So while it starts with the tour group, maybe the next stage will be the educated, wealthy traveller eager for cultural exchange.