The New Face of Tourism-Mainland Chinese

13 May 2004|LiAnne Yu

I read an article in Newsweek Asia recently about the new face of tourism: newly rich and mobile Mainland Chinese who are traveling outside of their country’s borders for the first time and in ever increasing numbers. It’s certainly common to see ethnic Chinese from Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the West as tourists, but Mainland Chinese have not, until very recently, been allowed to leave their country for leisure travel. The lifting of political restrictions under the Communist regime and the economic boom have created, for the first time in China’s history, a middle class with the means and the itch to travel abroad.

According to the Newsweek article, Mainland Chinese will become the largest group of travelers around the world within a few years, and yet they are thoroughly unlike the standard model of the traveler that the tourist industry is built around. The question then, is how are they different? And what can people in the restaurant, hotel, museum, and retail businesses do to appeal to this new wave of tourists?

I was in Frankfurt a few weeks ago and was strolling near the Main river behind a group of Chinese tourists speaking in the “curled tongue” Beijing accent. They were laughing and taking pictures like any other group of visitors, but they were also commenting on the historical buildings that were the main attraction in the area. “What’s so impressive about these buildings,” said one man. “Back in China we have buildings that are thousands of years older and bigger than any of these!” I followed this group a bit further up into the main shopping area (I can’t help myself, I’m an anthropologist), and heard them commenting with disappointment that “the shops here aren’t as new and pretty as the ones in Shanghai.”

I found these comments interesting in that they indicate really different perspectives on what’s valued in the travel experience. Gen-X Americans, like myself, seem to be searching for some authentic, “native” experience when we travel. We look for places and people we think are untouched by modernity. Whenever I’ve traveled in China, local friends think I’m weird for wanting to go to such “luohou” (backwards) places as the countryside or Tibet. And they find the whole Western backpacker phenomenon super weird (“why do Americans and Europeans look so sloppy and travel like homeless people?”).

For mainland Chinese traveling outside of their borders for the first time, the search for the authentic and old is less significant than the search for new forms of consumerism, as they emerge out of decades of economic and social chaos. As my colleague May Yick noted, one of the most visited places in the Bay Area among Chinese tourists includes the outlet stores in Gilroy, where brand name items can be purchased at discount prices. Chinese visitors to Korea take “pop culture” bus tours to places depicted in Korean soap operas—commonly shown in China. And they flock to Tokyo’s Akihabara district for cheap electronics.

Some 14 million mainlanders took international trips last year. As companies develop their strategies for selling products within China, they might also seriously consider how to sell products and services to Chinese traveling outside of China.

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