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Society & Culture

Unraveling Travel

Apr 14, 2016

Tourism these days is bigger than ever thanks to advances in transportation, infrastructure, and the spike in disposable income from once impoverished countries. All the moving about necessitates lots of food, beverages, lodging, and entertainment—a boon to many an economy. However the influx of people and money is not an unalloyed good, for it is disruptive in its wear and tear on the environment and its toll on locals. Even with welcome sums of money flowing into tourist destinations, there is inevitable dislocation, crowding, and cross-cultural breakdown—the unraveling nature of travel.

This was evident during a recent trip to Thailand where mainland Chinese are now the single largest group of foreign tourists, numbering some 8 million in 2015 and on track to exceed that by a million more in 2016. The rapid increase and steady influx of travellers from China is by and large welcomed with open arms. This new flood of visitors not only promises to invigorate Thailand’s sluggish, tourist-dependent economy, but also helps to make up for a marked slow-down in individual travellers due to the political disruptions of recent years. Chinese now account for more than one-fourth of all tourists in the country.

The numbers flying in are truly impressive. The once idle old airport of Don Muang is roaring with charter flights zooming back and forth to destinations due north and the traffic of discount carriers between China and Thailand is soaring, but the results on the ground are decidedly mixed.

For one, group tours, the most common conveyance of tourists from the middle kingdom to Thailand, tend to play into the hands of a few big players and offer limited trickle down benefit for ordinary Thais. Taxi drivers are cut out of loop when jumbo busses do most of the people hauling, and small to midsize hotels outside the confines of a narrow Sino-Thai network of favored bulk booking destinations see little additional traffic. Nor do gift stores, let alone mom-and-pop shops, have much chance of snagging tourist dollars when tour companies steer their charges to typically over-priced emporiums and entertainment venues, complete with Chinese language signage, designed to please and fleece Chinese tourists.

For example, the Royal Hotel, located in the heart of old Bangkok near the old palace grounds, used to be a favorite for individual travellers, Thai and tourist alike. Now the entrance is perpetually blocked by a fleet of growling tour busses while the dining room and lobby get reconfigured several times daily to serve as a quick roundtable buffet for bulk tourists on the go.

One need only look at China’s economy, diminished but still strong despite recent struggles, to realize that with national prosperity leisure travel will almost certainly follow. As wealth is accrued by, or trickles down to, the middle class vacation travel with mass characteristics is a market waiting to be exploited. It is commercial, first and foremost, but also edifying. It offers a chance for many ordinary people to be catered to and waited upon as often they have done. For many it is an opportunity to contemplate and experience the outside world for the first time in hectic, hard-working lives. Although mass tourism on a tight schedule only offers a glimpse of the outside world, it can wet the appetite for more, whether it be future individual excursions or repeat tour packages, basking in the attentive luxury which Thais are so adept at providing. Because optional travel is price sensitive, some incredible bargains loom for the traveller willing to put up with the indignity of being herded around as part of a budget tour. Even a so-called “zero-dollar” tour is not a free lunch—lavish spending in the shops of travel company cronies is the unspoken part of the deal—but the fact is, jet age conveyances, coupled with low fuel prices, have brought the joys and pitfalls of international travel to tens of millions of ordinary folk.

The buffet feeding frenzies, selfie exploits, bad driving, and lapses of decorum among mainland travellers have left a trail of complaints in their wake in popular destinations such as Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong. Only a fraction of the excesses get covered in the mainstream press—just because something is outrageous doesn’t make it newsworthy—but one also has to take into account a built-in reluctance to offend China on the part of many regional neighbors.

There are two reasons for this. Negative political coverage of China, or giving voice to China critics, does not go unnoticed by officials in Beijing, and sometimes can invite diplomatic or economic retribution. One need only follow the travels of the Dalai Lama, or the odd, troubling case of the five Hong Kong booksellers in Causeway Bay, to see this. The second reason for pulling punches in regards to the coverage of the vast waves of mass tourists rolling onto foreign shores is more economic: the palpable fear of scaring away the goose that lays the golden egg. Money is flush when the tour busses come rumbling by, and while only a fraction of put-upon locals stand to benefit financially, there are influential travel agencies with a vested interest in keeping the trade at peak levels.

The place where resistance to the tsunami of Chinese tourism is most readily detected is of course the Internet, where tirades against the golden hordes share countless clicks with viral videos illustrating the latest faux pas or failure of communication. The ubiquity of smart phones leaves a vivid record of touristic excess, sometimes outrageous, sometimes hilarious, sometimes both.

The heyday of American package tours and Japanese junkets is largely over, and for better or worse, the worst of it went untelevised. In today’s travel ecosystem, excesses are televised. Yet, while one can find evidence of unruly Russians, cliquish Koreans or drunken and bad behavior from individuals of any number of nationalities none of these have captured the imagination of the media as China has. For much of the world, China, has long been, and remains, the ultimate “other.” Given its power, size and deep pockets, it is subject to extra scrutiny, somewhat prejudicial coverage and is frequently, and unfairly, used as a target for media pile-ons.

The Guangzhou Daily recently wrote on the topic, decrying the “demonization” of Chinese tourists, offering counter-factuals that outlined several viral incidents that were either dated or taken out of context. While acknowledging that it is inevitable that some “unpleasant stories should emerge” when annual traffic out of China is over 120 million trips abroad, the state-run paper took a defensive stance on the topic, asserting that Chinese tourists have become “more aware of respecting local customs and behaving themselves.” Finally, the op-ed, republished in English in the China Daily on March 28, 2016, sternly reminds readers that touristic abuse is a two-way street: “Foreign business people seeking to fleece Chinese travelers will finally be punished by market laws and lose the world’s fastest growing source of tourists.”

Innocents and ostentatious travelers abroad have long been a subject of envy, amazement and resentment. As the vagaries of national prosperity have, over time, opened up global travel to the vast middle classes unaccustomed or uninterested in the discreet ways of diplomats and seasoned exiles. The resultant cultural clash has been a staple of humor and human-interest tales since the times of Henry James.

Americans abroad have been the pit of many jokes since the 19th century. Been there, done that. Ditto for the British. In more recent decades, newly prosperous Japan, Taiwan and Korea enjoyed their day in the sun as a prime source of unruly, profligate tourists. The times change, but the tune remains much the same. Tourists are almost always appreciated economically but cultural tensions arise, especially when the numbers are overwhelming. In the long run, tourism is a force for peace. Friendships are forged, cultural differences are examined and the transformative power of travel enlightens, just as it always has.

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