Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: May 17, 2006
BANGKOK ó The way it began, with a buffet laid out on deck and “Moon River” oozing from the loudspeakers, it could have been just about any Bangkok sundown cruise.
But this one was unmistakably different. Before the boat even left the dock the food disappeared, right down to the last slice of watermelon ó a Chinese favorite. Then the Western musical standards were quickly replaced with recent Chinese hits. And within minutes the passengers, all of whom were Chinese, were singing along.
Any doubts that this was a new day in Thai tourism were put aside as the ship set off down the Chao Phraya River under an exploding sunset. Every few minutes, when it encountered another boat laden with Chinese tourists ó and there were many ó the passengers hailed one another back and forth cheerfully, in their own language, of course.
For the first time in history, large numbers of Chinese are leaving their country as tourists, resulting in an unparalleled explosion in Chinese travel. If current projections are met, the global tourism industry will be undergoing a crash course in everything Chinese to accommodate the needs of what promises to be the greatest wave of international travelers ever.
As usual when something goes over big in China, the numbers are staggering. In 1995, only 4.5 million Chinese traveled overseas. By 2005 that figure had increased to 31 million, and if expectations for future growth are met or approached, even that gargantuan growth will be quickly dwarfed. Chinese and international travel industry experts forecast that at least 50 million Chinese tourists will travel overseas annually by 2010, and 100 million by 2020.
In 2004, the last year for which there is complete information, 61.7 million Americans traveled abroad.
“They are latecomers on the tourism scene, but they have come on in a big way,” said Xu Jing, the Madrid-based director of Asia and Pacific affairs at the World Tourism Organization, an agency of the United Nations. “The growth in Chinese outbound travel in the last five years has been the highest in the world ó in the range of 37 or 38 percent a year.”
The last nation to burst on the world travel scene with similar speed and force was Japan, which was enjoying an explosion of prosperity in the 1980’s. Suddenly Japanese could be seen everywhere, especially groups of middle-aged tourists wearing caps and brandishing the latest camera gear, and led, inevitably, by a Japanese tour guide hoisting a flag so that people would not get lost.
The industry responded by placing Japanese-style slippers and bathrobes in hotel rooms, along with Japanese-language television channels. Japanese-speaking staff members also became de rigueur at hotels and fashionable shops. All that for roughly 17 million overseas visits.
As recently as the late 1980’s, all but a select few Chinese were expressly forbidden to travel overseas. But by 2003, China’s overseas travelers had already surpassed Japan’s, placing the country squarely among the world’s leaders. Ultimately, travel experts say, the Chinese impact on world tourism stands to be even bigger.
The six most popular destinations for the Chinese are Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Russia, Thailand and the United States. Already, patterns that took years to develop during the Japanese wave are falling rapidly into place in many of those countries, with hotels, restaurants, airports and shops beginning to cater to their needs with special Chinese-language services, bank A.T.M.’s and menus adapted to Chinese tastes.
As fast as this growth is, though, some in the Chinese travel industry warn that the world is not adapting fast enough. “China is the latest and greatest market, but if other countries don’t take cultural differences into account it will hinder our joint efforts to develop it,” said Wang Ping, president of the Chinese Chamber of Tourism Commerce.
Ms. Wang said that while Europe was adjusting rapidly to Chinese needs, North America was not, and hotels and other places frequented by tourists failed to provide Chinese-language aids, or food or something so simple as hot water in rooms for tea.
By no means is all of the adjustment on the side of the receiving nations. Chinese tourists have been fined heavily in France recently for arriving with counterfeit luxury goods, like fake Louis-Vuitton handbags.
In Shanghai and other cities, travel agencies post people at airports warning Chinese travelers about penalties for importing fakes and imparting advice on etiquette in the West. “Don’t pick teeth, touch your belt, pull at your pants or take off your shoes in public,” reads one common brochure. “Don’t point fingers at people you’re talking to, and don’t put your hands on others’ shoulders.”
The travel publishing industry, too, is racing to cater to the needs of huge waves of novice Chinese travelers, translating existing guides into the language or producing original material.
Next month Lonely Planet, a leader in the effort so far, will produce the first four of what it expects to be many Chinese-language guidebooks. The initial titles cover Germany, Britain, Europe and Australia, with guides covering the United States, Canada and Southeast Asia due soon afterward.
“In 1998, there wasn’t one travel guidebook,” said Cai Jinghui, the China representative for Lonely Planet. “Nowadays traveling abroad is very common, especially to Southeast Asia. For Chinese, going to Thailand is no different from going to Yunnan.”
More than a simple reflection of commercial opportunity, the appearance of Chinese-language guides from companies like Lonely Planet and Michelin reflects a shift in the makeup of the Chinese tourist population, which includes growing numbers of people of modest incomes who are going abroad for the first time.
Such travelers predominated on the Bangkok sundown cruise, where Zhou Jingjian, 51, a power company employee from Shandong Province on a company trip, confidently but misleadingly lectured his traveling colleagues on geography. “This river divides Thailand and Vietnam,” Mr. Zhou was heard to say. “That side is Vietnam. This side is Thailand.” The two countries are not adjacent.
Copyright The New York Times