Chinese tourists stand out as much for their numbers as their bad behaviour

Bernard Chan says that, given time, they will adopt better manners

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 May, 2015, 12:23pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

Some 20 years ago, I was waiting for a Hong Kong flight at a boarding gate in Bangkok airport. The ground staff finally made the announcement that boarding was about to start. And, within seconds, a huge crowd of passengers had swamped the gate, as if they were trying to push their way onto the aircraft.

It was my first experience of mainland Chinese tourists. In those days, mainlanders were just discovering overseas leisure travel. The numbers were small, they had to join organised package tours, and the main destinations were Hong Kong, Macau and a few capital cities in Southeast Asia.

Nowadays, mainlanders travel all over the world, many independently rather than in groups. The number of outbound trips from the mainland went over 100 million for the first time last year, and many of these were not travelling or flying for the first time. They are mostly as orderly as anyone else.

Yet they have a poor reputation. Badly behaved Chinese tourists are now a frequent international news story.

In Hong Kong, we remember particular incidents: the mainlanders' child who ate food on the MTR, and the visitors who let their child go to the toilet in the street.

Internationally, there is the Chinese tourist who carved his name in an ancient Egyptian monument, and regular reports of mainlanders fighting over seats on aircraft.

We could argue that this is inevitable when a country develops a middle class, and people can afford to travel for the first time. But Japanese outbound tourism exploded in the 1970s and 1980s - from around 600,000 trips in 1970 to 17 million by the mid-1990s. They didn't get banned from temples or try to open aircraft doors.

It is true that China is a big country with a huge population. Even a small percentage behaving badly can add up to a lot of people. But this is not an excuse. There are over a billion Indians, and European international travellers outnumber Chinese - but we do not read about Indian or European tourists doing terrible things.

The problem, if we are to be honest, is that many mainland people were brought up in an environment where pushing was a normal part of life.

Many mainland cities now have campaigns encouraging what officials call "civilised behaviour". This is seen as a part of modernisation and progress. To the Chinese government, it is also about the nation's international image. The main growth areas for outbound tourism are the less-advanced second- and third-tier mainland cities.

Italy, the United States, France and Switzerland are all approaching the point where they get half a million Chinese visitors a year. The reputation of the Chinese in foreigners' eyes is at stake.

Those of us who are old enough can remember a time when spitting and littering were common here in Hong Kong. Looking back, we can see that public education had a major effect. The mainland is going through something similar.

Indeed, Hong Kong people were not always good travellers. When I was younger, people made fun of us for bringing cup noodles with us onto flights and giving the cabin a funny smell. Nowadays, of course, inflight cup noodles are standard on local airlines’ long-haul flights and everyone eats them. 

I also remember once being with friends in Vancouver. When we drove up to an intersection on a red light, someone would get out of the car and push the button for the other road’s pedestrian crossing – turning the light facing us green. It was one of those times I felt very self-conscious, and frankly embarrassed, about being a Hong Kong person.

The point is that this is just a normal, natural phase - but on a huge scale. After decades when overseas travel was rare, mainland Chinese are going out into the world.

What makes China's case so special is not so much the activities of the tourists as their incredible numbers.

In time, the badly behaved Chinese tourist will be a memory.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council