The guilt trip

Jon Campbell

We were supposed to be en route to the Great Wall. And we were assured that we were, in fact, en route to the Great Wall. My parents had come a long way to see it, and had, upon booking their trip to China from home, hired a car and a guide, thinking it was the best way to get the most out of the landmarks strewn across the Middle Kingdom.

We were mistaken, but we realised too late. It was only as our car pulled off the road we discovered we'd been taken for a ride: to the cloisonne factory, that is. 'Would you like to shop for some beautiful cloisonne?' we were asked by our guide as the car came to a stop. 'No, we wouldn't,' we told her. 'We'd like to see the Great Wall,' that symbol of ancient China my parents had come a long way to check out.

Our second mistake was interpreting her question as a sign we had a choice. That we didn't want any enamel tchotchkes was of no import to the guide. The fact that we'd hired her so we would have the freedom a bus tour of the wall wouldn't allow didn't register either. What mattered to her was signing her name inside the cloisonne factory. 'I'll get in trouble if I don't sign in,' we were told.

For the rest of my parents' time in China, we had similar experiences: the Terracotta Warriors replica factory in Xian en route to the actual warriors; the pearl factory in Guilin : all places we had no interest in going to; all places we assumed we'd be able to avoid.

At work here is the same logic behind why you can't get good Chinese food outside of China - or at the dining rooms in three-star hotels approved by the China International Travel Service where tourists 'on the package' are taken. These restaurateurs 'know' what foreign palates want. And then, by happy coincidence - there is likely no cross-border conspiracy at work here - these restaurants reinforce the 'authenticity' of the overseas Chinese dining experience.

In the same way, Chinese tour guides 'know' what foreign tourists want: lots of opportunities to buy a whole bunch of junk. And the ones who don't? They hold their breath and stretch their legs while the guide signs in and begs them to at least show their faces inside. Which they do, since the guide has added a layer of guilt into the proceeding.

Tourism is supposed to encourage cross-cultural understanding, not serve to deepen misconceptions. At the very least, guides should stop asking their clients if they'd like to pull off the road if there's really no choice. At best, guides - and their (state-run) agencies - might want to do more asking, and discover what it is that visitors think they'd like to do.