The Chinese are coming

Governments around the world are eager to lure big-spending Asian tourists

A group of Chinese tourists enjoying a day on the beach in Thailand.
A group of Chinese tourists enjoying a day on the beach in Thailand.Zigor Aldama

Lin Xi, a twentysomething secretary from the Chongqing megalopolis in southwestern China, says that she will never again take a vacation in her own country, at least not during the official holiday period. On October 2, along with around 4,000 others, she was visiting the Jiuzhaigou national park, in Sichuan, in the north of the country. "There were a lot of people who were unable to leave because there weren't enough buses. There was nowhere to stay, and so people began to get angry and demand their money back. The offices closed, and then somebody said that there were no more buses, so everybody just started to rip the place apart," she says.

This was not the only incident during the seven-day period when most Chinese take their vacations: in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, more than 11,000 people who had gathered to watch the raising of the national flag left some five tons of garbage behind, while in Shanghai, troops had to close off the Nanjing Dong highway to prevent vacationers from further blocking it. In short, this year's holidays exposed the failings of a tourist industry no longer able to deal with its own population. The upside has been a huge increase in tourism revenue. The country's tourism board says that that more than three billion trips will probably be made this year, a 15-percent increase on 2012, when the tourism industry generated earnings of 321 billion euros, employing 23 million people in the process, and accounting for 2.6 percent of GDP.

"People are no longer saving their money, and increasingly spending it on leisure," says the manager of a large travel agency in Shanghai. "The problem is that the infrastructure can't cope with these sudden sharp rises in numbers during major holiday periods." Lin Xi says that she has learned her lesson: "From now on I will save up my money and travel abroad."

Tax-free spending

She is not alone. The World Tourism Organization says that last year, 83 million Chinese took their vacations abroad, an eight-fold increase on 2000. The Chinese overtook the Russians as the main consumers of tax-free goods in Europe, and in 2012, overtook the Germans on the amount they spend on travel. Last year they spent 78.4 billion euros, a 40-percent increase on 2011.

In the process, they have earned a fearsome reputation in some countries for their bad behavior, urinating in swimming pools, stealing life jackets from planes, spitting in the street, cooking up pot noodles in luxury shopping centers in Paris, or, in the case of Thailand, having their photographs taken sitting on statues of the Buddha. Undaunted, Spain has set itself the challenge of trying to attract more Chinese visitors, setting the target of one million by 2020. This year's January-July period saw 112,000 Chinese visit Spain, a 30-percent increase on 2012. In general, Spain, like the rest of Europe, is moving away from organized mass tourism: France comes 11th out of the top 25 destinations for Chinese vacationers. Spain is not on the list.

Rowdy or not, governments around the world are doing all they can to attract Chinese visitors, seeing them as a simple way to improve their ailing economies. But tempting the Chinese is no easy task, says Chanarong Mookjai of the Thai Association of Travel Agencies. "The absolutely essential thing is having enough people who can speak Chinese around so that visitors feel comfortable, and that also means that we have to adapt to their needs. For example, it is unthinkable these days for any decent hotel not to have at least one person on duty at all times who is fluent in Mandarin." According to the Spanish Consulate in Shanghai, the lack of Mandarin speakers in Spain is preventing the country from luring more visitors from China.

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