Chinese tourism: The West strains to understand a new, $85 billion-a-year industry

January 4, 2013

Chinese tourists pose in front of Buckingham Palace in London. (Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)

The first thing to know about Chinese tourists visiting the West is that you will probably never truly meet their high expectations. The second thing to know is that, for Western tourism officials and businesses, you have to try anyway, because Chinese tourists are the second-highest overall spenders in the world.

In 2011, ExxonMobil, the largest company in the world by revenue, made about $41 billion in profits. Last year, Chinese tourists spent more than twice as much on foreign trips: $85 billion. That's a skyrocketing increase from $72.6 billion in 2011 and $54.9 billion the year before. International comparative data isn't available for last year, but in previous years Chinese had ranked third among highest-spending tourists, behind Germany and the U.S.; it appears likely that China's tourists have overtaken American tourism and may soon pass Germans as well.

Chinese tourism is an enormous business opportunity, one the world is aggressively pursuing. Last year, Chinese citizens took 82 million cross-border trips; quite a few countries will likely compete for some of those visits in 2013. The most popular destinations are, no surprise, neighboring countries such as South Korea and Thailand (Japan suffered for Chinese tourists this year, probably due to tensions and protests over disputed islands). But some of those are small trips. For the big, expensive journeys, Chinese tourists often land in Europe. "When the Chinese travel industry polls the public on its dream destinations, no place ranks higher than Europe," Evan Osnos wrote in a New Yorker article on Chinese tourism. When the country first began allowing citizens to travel widely abroad in 1997, Chinese tourists "soon earned a reputation as passionate, if occasionally overwhelming, guests."

The potential for Chinese tourism spending is so high that one European country, Switzerland, decided to put together a rigorous, in-depth report on how best to attract and serve this relatively recent influx. The government and tourism industry authors of "Swiss Hospitality for Chinese Guests" seemed to do their very best to walk the line between appreciating cultural distinctions and reinforcing stereotypes. I don't know Chinese tourism habits well enough to judge their success or failure, though it's hard not to cringe at lines like, "Chinese love chatting together loudly – even in public." Either way, their findings and recommendations are interesting to look through. Here are a few.

You will never meet their high expectations.

"The expectations toward the 'faraway' west are high," the report says, which tracks with my own experience. For all the Western world's amazement at China's truly amazing growth, I've found that most Chinese still see their country as far behind the West. Which means that the more advanced China becomes, the higher that Chinese expectations of the West will rise. This may be part of why, when the New Yorker's Osnos went on a standard Chinese tour to Europe in 2011, "every Chinese member of the tour was required to put up a bond amounting to seventy-six hundred dollars — more than two years’ salary for the average worker — to prevent anyone from disappearing before the flight home."  

The other thing building these high expectations is China's well-established tradition of meticulous hospitality.

At one point, after detailing the Chinese standards for hosting guests, the report gets blunt: "Hospitality has a far greater significance in China than it does in Switzerland." All of which, it turns out, is a way of easing Swiss merchants and tour operators into this: "Given the aforementioned, it will not come as a surprise that the expectations of Chinese guests toward their Swiss hosts are very high. They will, in principle, take it for granted that their Swiss counterparts know all about their preferences and habits and that they are well prepared for these. They will also expect that everything possible will be undertaken by their hosts in order to make them happy." In other words, because Chinese hold themselves to a high standard for hospitality, they also hold their hosts in rich Western countries like Switzerland to a high standard.

Your celebrated national cuisine will also disappoint Chinese tourists.

It's hard to argue with Chinese national pride in the country's world-famous food. As the report puts it, "Much of Chinese daily life revolves around food and just about every Chinese person considers himself to be an expert in that field." But the upshot of this chopstick nationalism is that other national cuisines are less likely to impress. Particularly if they have too much cheese or other dairy.

The New Yorker's Chinese-in-Europe travelogue details tourists avoiding the French bakeries in favor of grocery store fruit aisles. It also includes this great moment, when the tour guide tells his bus full of Chinese tourists what to expect at breakfast:

In Europe, he warned, tactfully, “Throughout our trip, breakfast will rarely be more than bread, cold ham, milk, and coffee.” The bus was silent for a moment.

According to the Swiss government guide, after telling Swiss restaurateurs and tourist officials that Chinese tourists will never like Swiss food as much as their own, offers another blunt piece of advice: "Don‘t try and cook Chinese food (it will never be any better than average)." Ouch. At one point, the report seems to suggest simply taking tourists to Chinese restaurants:

It is not really surprising that food becomes one of the most important – if not the most important part – of a Chinese trip. In fact, most Chinese will not recommend to their friends or family to see specific sights such as monuments or museums, but rather, will tell them not to miss the best spring rolls in town at Wang’s restaurant, or that exquisite roasted duck. In fact, it would be unthinkable for the Chinese to enjoy something other than Chinese food when on a trip abroad.

Don't bring up politics.

This advice might go double for Americans, who are famous for openly discussing tense political subjects of the sort that are politely avoided in most cultures. Still, the report is clear to not bring up, for example, "regional independence movements" – that would mean Tibet – with Chinese tourists, who tend to be both "proud to be citizens of the People's Republic of China" and wary of feeling criticized by Westerners. It explains, "your Chinese counterpart often does not feel at ease discussing controversial matters."

In a line that suggests prior mishaps, the report also stresses, "Display the correct flag of the People’s Republic of China!" Perhaps well-meaning hosts were stringing up the Taiwanese standard?

Traveling 'renao' style.

Bustle and noise seem to be big draws, according to the Swiss report:

Chinese love places which are 'renao' – literally hot ('re') and noisy ('nao') – in the sense of bustling activity. 'Renao' is a part of Chinese lifestyle in much the same way as cosiness ('Gemütlichkeit') is for the Swiss, Germans and Austrians.

The other side of this seems to be that tourists move quickly, particularly at meals. I've bolded a line below that urges Swiss hosts not to be too offended.

The Chinese are “last minute travelers”, they don’t really plan their trip and they don’t like to wait. Show flexibility with regard to the suggestions of your Chinese guests and provide a speedy response and service.

Chinese travel with little luggage: Provide a basic selection of accessories for daily use, such as shampoo, tooth brush and tooth paste in their room.

Chinese eat quickly: try and serve the food all at the same time and please don’t take it as a mark of disrespect when the Chinese leave the table immediately – as soon as they have put down their cutlery or chopsticks.

Everything is a group activity.

"Finding oneself alone at a table is considered to be one of the worst fates possible," the report says, possibly overstating things a bit. The report adds, in yet another line that sounds more like a warning than a piece of advice, "Shopping is also a social event: Be prepared to deal with a whole group of Chinese customers at once."

Chinese tourists are big spenders.

Though China's GDP per capita is typically a fraction of that in Western countries, the average Chinese visitor outspends almost every other tourist, or at least in Switzerland.  According to the study, Chinese visitors to Switzerland spend on average $350 per day, more than any Western nationalities. Americans spend $220 per day, Germans $150. And they're potentially much more numerous, too. So if you're wondering why this Swiss government report would go to such pains to encourage businesses and officials to bend over backwards for Chinese tourists, that's why.

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Olga Khazan | January 4, 2013