July 16, 2013 5:42 pm

China offers Brits a lesson in manners

Some may balk at governments prescribing how their citizens behave when abroad. I disagree
Chinese tourists at cake shop with windows decorated during Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee©Alamy

China is fretting about its global image. Some of the new generation of wealthy Chinese tourists stand accused of bad behaviour when visiting world capitals. Since up to 100m may take an overseas holiday this year, Beijing worries the rude minority is tarnishing its reputation. A report that a schoolboy had scratched his name on a temple in the ancient Egyptian city of Luxor recently whipped up a storm in the Chinese blogosphere.

Vice-premier Wang Yang warned “uncivilised behaviour” harmed China’s image. The National Tourism Administration published rules to be tucked into passports. They start from the admirable sentiment that “being a civilised tourist is the obligation of each citizen”.

Those venturing abroad must uphold public order, protect the environment, be courteous and show respect for historic treasures. Among proscribed behaviours are spitting, littering and queue-jumping.

Some may balk at the idea of governments prescribing how they behave when abroad. I disagree. To my mind some others should take their cue from Beijing. Top of the list is Britain’s government.

The Victorian notion of the gallant Englishman abroad has given way to the reality of the boorish Brit. For many (but not all) British tourists communicating in any language other than English is anathema. If the French don’t speak English that’s their problem. Likewise, the Spanish, Italians and Greeks. Eating “foreign” food is equally preposterous. Sausage, egg and bacon are good enough at home, so why not in Malaga, Nice or Rimini?

Banx illustration

Then there are the “booze tours” of hordes of young men and women for whom the purpose of visiting a beautiful Greek island is to drink as much cheap alcohol as quickly as possible before vomiting it out on quaintly cobbled streets. Cheap flights have opened up the capitals of many former communist countries in eastern Europe for “stag weekends” – alcohol-fuelled prenuptial rituals during which the groom-to-be and his friends behave as badly as possible before returning home so he can walk up the aisle. Riga, the capital of Latvia, has been obliged to set up a special police squad to cope with these marauders.

By these standards, others need to give their citizens only a gentle slap on the wrist. Italians could be told to be quieter and Germans reminded that it is bad manners to grab all the sun-loungers at seaside resorts. American tourists could be told they cannot expect Parisian restaurants to serve dinner at 5pm or to offer diet cola with the tasting menu.

. . .

Big spenders

Those Chinese visitors are highly prized in Europe – well, in most of it. China will soon be the largest source of international tourism but it is not just that there are an awful lot of them. They arrive with a lot of cash and a voracious appetite for luxury goods. By some accounts the Chinese are already spending more than £100bn on their foreign forays. That sort of money matters in economies still struggling with domestic austerity and recession.

Many, however, bypass London. The Conservative-led government plays up Britain’s role as a global hub. But it also chases populist votes by cracking down on immigration. As a result, all visitors from outside the EU are treated as potential illegal immigrants. They are subject to exhaustive form-filling and interviews before being allowed in. Understandably, many opt for the simpler Schengen visa, which gives them the right of entry to 26 other European countries. Theresa May, home secretary, is now threatening to force non-European visitors to stump up a deposit against the possibility of falling ill and needing treatment from the National Health Service. Little wonder the Champs-Elysées is booming as Paris scoops up business that might have gone to London’s Bond Street.

. . .

Elders and betters?

Those of us who count themselves baby boomers are looking with envy at another Chinese innovation. Faced with the rapid ageing of its population, Beijing is concerned that economic success may lead the younger generation to neglect their elders. So a new elderly rights law sets out the responsibilities of children to look after the over-60s – addressing their spiritual as well as material needs and making sure to visit them “frequently”. Fines and, in extreme cases, prison await those guilty of neglect. Now there is something I could vote for.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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