The new Ugly Americans are, of course, the Chinese.
This shouldn’t be surprising. The new Industrious Americans are also Chinese, as are the new Materialistic Americans. Still, the rapidity with which Chinese tourists have taken the mantel as both the most valuable and the most resented of foreign guests has been staggering.
This week the New York Times considered the incredible explosion of Chinese tourism. In 2012, 83 million mainland Chinese spent $102 billion abroad. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, they’re now the world’s biggest tourism spenders.
It’s a takeover that came out of nowhere. As Elizabeth Becker writes in Overbooked, her excellent history of the business of tourism, “for most of the twentieth century China wasn’t part of the tourism industry.” The government didn’t let people in or allow the Chinese out. It wasn’t until 1997 that Chinese citizens were even allowed to travel abroad in groups, and then only to government-approved destinations. In 2000, the party created a series of paid national holidays, known as “Golden Weeks,” finally giving the increasingly wealthy Chinese the time to travel.
The result has been a burst of Chinese tourists, many of whom have never been overseas and apparently aren’t even particularly familiar with exactly what you’re supposed to do while tromping around the south of France or the streets of Rome.
The Times article spends much time considering the nuisance these boorish, uneducated travelers can cause. “They gawk, they shove, they eschew local cuisine,” the piece reads. The paper quotes Hung Huang, a magazine publisher in Beijing: “That China is a lawless, poorly educated society with a lot of money is going to take its toll on the whole world,” he says.
This summer, a Chinese teenager on vacation with his parents scrawled “Ding Jinhao was here,” on the wall of a 3,500-year-old Luxor temple in Egypt. The Communist Party, in typical Communist Party response, reissued a 128-character rhyme designed to teach citizens how to act overseas, encouraging them to line up and not to shout or waste food. “Gambling and pornography, we resolutely oppose,” the imperfect rhyme read, according to the South China Morning Post.
Beneath this hysteria about Chinese tourists acting badly, of course, is a strong measure of insecurity. Chinese tourists will adjust—if not through rhyming PSAs, then simply through time, the way that the newly wealthy always figure out how to wield their dollars. It’s the rest of the world, North Americans in particular, that may find the adjustment more difficult.
When we think of China as a growing superpower, we tend to think vaguely of the way it has taken over manufacturing, its growing military, all those Olympic medals. But it’s the small, cultural changes that we may feel most acutely: the Chinese models suddenly showing up in the pages of Vogue as designers try to woo luxury-brand-mad Chinese consumers, the Chinese actors increasingly appearing in Hollywood blockbusters to try to boost box office numbers overseas.
As North Americans, we’ve grown so used to having the world cater to our demands and tastes that it has felt like the natural order, as if the Americanization of disparate corners of the globe was somehow culturally neutral. Of course restaurants from Nairobi to Beijing will have hotdogs on the kids menu. Obviously the hotel concierge will speak English and I’ll be able to watch football highlights on ESPN in my room. Why wouldn’t the supermodels of the world all look like me?
We forget how consciously and carefully that world was built. In the years following World War II, France, still the world’s number-one tourism destination, turned to tourism as the quickest way to infuse money into a country that had had most of its industries devastated. Money was funneled into tourism infrastructure, primarily aimed at securing the dollars of Americans, those vulgar but loaded new masters of the globe. Hotel rooms were renovated to suit new world tastes. Plane tickets from the United States were subsidized. Tourism workers were trained in the preferences of gawking mid-westerners.
France has not maintained its position as a top tourist destination by accident. As Chinese tourists began flowing out into the world, the country was one of the first to translate its tourism website into Chinese. In anticipation of the first Chinese tour groups of 2003, France’s tourism officials prodded businesses into finding chefs to prepare Chinese food, Mandarin-speaking tour guides, and translators for high-end department stores.
A newly powerful China will cause all sorts of reverberations, some easier to predict than others. But it certainly means the end of a world that could sometimes seem as if it had been expressly designed for the pleasure of the North American with a dollar in his pocket.