China's big-spending tourists leave trail of havoc

The billions they spend are welcome – but the brawls and brazen shoplifting are not winning them friends

Column LAST UPDATED AT 13:01 ON Mon 24 Feb 2014

SHANGHAI - The purchasing power of China’s new rich is now so great, and the number of Chinese travelling abroad is so high (97 million last year), that they have become the world's biggest spenders, disposing of $100 billion on their travels in 2013.

“Chinese tourists spend so much abroad that some foreigners are calling us ‘walking wallets’,” Song Rui, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told China Daily.

With this in mind, retailers, hoteliers and other business groups have successfully lobbied European governments – Westminster included – to make it easier for affluent Chinese tourists to visit their countries. 

But should they be careful what they wish for?

After a spate of embarrassing incidents involving Chinese abroad last year, the Communist Party issued an official 64-page etiquette guide for the country’s emerging jet-setters. 

Among the examples of uncouth behaviour were a teenager who carved 'Ding Jinhao was here' on Egypt’s 3,500-year-old Luxor Temple; fake marriage documents being presented at resorts in the Maldives to claim free meals; and photos posted online of holidaymakers chowing down on endangered species in the Paracel islands.

The official guidebook advised not to pick noses in public, urinate in swimming pools, leave footprints on toilet seats, hawk and spit on streets, pilfer aircraft life jackets and more.

But not everyone read the guide, it seems. The latest (publicised) incident occurred last week when an entire group of Chinese tourists, some bruised and bloodied, were marched off a China Eastern Airlines flight just before take-off from the Thai island of Phuket, bound for the city of Wuhan. Fifteen of them had engaged in a brawl over who would be sitting in which seats.

This followed a spate of brazen thefts last year by Chinese travellers at Phuket's international airport. The culprits would wait until their flights were boarding to help themselves at duty-free shops, then hot-foot it for their gates and make airborne getaways.

In one case, a thief snatched expensive cosmetics but was caught on security cameras rushing for a flight. Security officers were at the plane’s door within minutes but the captain would not permit them to board, though he ordered cabin staff to retrieve and return the booty before taking off. 

With its absolute reliance on tourist dollars, laidback Phuket appears to be rolling with the dropkicks meted out by big-spending Chinese tourists.

Hong Kong, the number-one destination for mainland Chinese visitors, is not proving so resilient however, with many inhabitants feeling overwhelmed by what has been dubbed a "scourge from the north".

I recall, when living in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, the local tourism authority delightedly announcing that the number of visitors to the then-British colony each year had topped the magical figure of 10 million. A week ago, the tourism board announced that Hong Kong (current population 7.1m) is expected to attract about 59 million visitors in 2014, with 45 million of them from mainland China.

Last Sunday, police had to intervene when another “anti-locust” demonstration by disgruntled Hong-Kongers became vitriolic. The protesters chose the designer-shopping strip of Canton Road to release their ire, yelling: “Go back to China” and “Reclaim Hong Kong”.

Last week, it was announced that Hong Kong's race-hate laws might have to be amended to cover discrimination against members of the same ethnic group. (When the ordinance was drafted in 2008, the government held that mainlanders and Hong-Kongers should not be differentiated by race and nationality.)

Meanwhile, just across the Pearl River Delta, the formerly Portuguese enclave of Macau - sovereignty of which was returned to China in 1999 - was brought to a virtual standstill during this year’s Chinese New Year holiday when more than 2.5 million visitors flooded in from the mainland in a week.

Macau is the only place in China where casinos are legal and is considered Asia’s Las Vegas. It has a resident population of less than 600,000 and a land area only three per cent that of Hong Kong.

The 29 million people who visited Macau last year, most from China, helped the city pull in $45 billion in revenue – about seven times the amount dropped on the Las Vegas Strip.

Chinese vacation tastes appear to be changing, however. A recent survey by Boston Consulting Group of 1,000 middle-class Chinese travellers discovered that eight of their top ten dream destinations in the near future would be outside Asia.

So, who needs to be on their guard? The tiny Maldives in the Indian Ocean topped the Chinese wish-list, followed by the United States, France and Australia.  · 

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