An edited version of this piece was published in Shenzhen Daily on September 9, 2013.
There has been a rash of news stories lately about bad behavior of Chinese tourists abroad. They are criticized for being rude, loud, poor tippers, and generally obnoxious. Most of the criticism, it seems, comes from other Chinese who are embarrassed by the behavior of their countrymen. Some call it uncivilized behavior.
I disagree. If a Chinese person disrupts a restaurant by talking too loud, it doesn’t mean he’s uncivilized. It means he talks too loud, nothing more. If a Chinese fails to leave a gratuity it means there is no tipping in China and the practice was unfamiliar to the tourist.
It was reported in Xinhua that Vice Premier Wang Yang called on the nation’s tourists to improve their behavior, stressing it was important to project a “good image”
Wang went on to call certain Chinese tourists uncivilized. “They make a terrible racket in public places, scrawl their names on tourist sites, ignore red lights when crossing the road and spit everywhere. This damages our national image…” He ignored Chinese culture in this statement.
By now most people have heard the story of a 15-year-old Chinese boy who scratched his name into a 3,500-year-old temple in Egypt’s Luxor. The incident created a furor worldwide, especially in China, unlike some of the more minor offences. But it hardly means that all Chinese are anxious to damage ancient relics. It was no more than poor behavior by an individual.
To help tourists understand how to best behave while out of the country, the central government has issued guidelines on its main website. Subjects include dressing properly, queuing up and not shouting.
There was another story in the news recently about an American tourist breaking the finger off a 600 year old statue in Florence. Was breaking the statue an example of uncivilized behavior? Of course it was. Does that mean all American tourists are uncivilized? Of course not.
Money is the great un-equalizer, and according to an unsigned article that appeared in the British publication, The Corner, 83 million Chinese travelers spent US$102 billion last year (up 40 percent from 2011) making them the most lavish spending of travelers.
Many people think if they pay money for goods or services, it gives them the right to be demanding or abusive. Undoubtedly this attitude is not a strictly Chinese trait.
Once I was in the Budapest factory store of Herend, a famous Hungarian manufacturer of fine porcelain and china. A group of Japanese tourists came in at the same time. One man collected tea cups and wanted to buy one. The clerk told him they were only available as a cup and saucer set. She wasn’t allowed to sell just the cup. After ranting loudly for a few minutes, the man bought the set. Then he proceeded to smash the saucer on the floor before storming out of the shop with the cup only.
Did this mean all Japanese tourists are obnoxious slobs? Absolutely not. Most members of his group seemed embarrassed by his behavior. All it means this one guy was a poor representative of his country. There are examples of poor behavior to be found everywhere.
In Paris visitors from China are told by a sign outside the Louvre Museum (now reportedly removed) written in Chinese characters, they can not urinate or defecate wherever they want inside the museum.
Yong Chen, tourism researcher at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said most “bad” tourists don’t intend to be “bad.” They are just being themselves. He went on to point out that their knowledge of the destination country and its culture is often outdated or completely non-existent.
Another researcher, Liu Simin of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, arrogantly noted that, “Objectively speaking, our tourists have relatively low-civilized characters.”
Bad behavior involving Chinese tourists doesn’t all go one way. In the news recently was a story of some Chinese who were shaken down for money in Cambodia. There was another story of a Chinese student being charged more that $4,000. USD for a taxi ride in Chicago. And there are always a few stories of Chinese tourists or students being crime victims.
On a personal level, I’ve done things in foreign countries that I’m not proud of. In most cases they were a result of lack of knowledge, but a couple of times I was purposely a bad ambassador for my country and acted like a spoiled, petulant child.
Once I was turned away at a busy restaurant in Amsterdam. The only empty tale they had seated four people. I was alone. I whined, complained, and generally acted childish to the hostess for not seating me. Later I regretted my behavior, though by then it was too late.
Most People who work in the tourism industry understand that all people are not alike, and don’t expect everyone to act the same. They instinctively realize the best way end bad Chinese behavior is for more Chinese to travel.
As Wang Wanfei, a tourism professor at Zhejiang University, noted, “Travelling is a learning experience for tourists. (Chinese tourists) learn how to absorb local culture in the process (of traveling), and get rid of their bad tourist behavior.”