Chinese tourists in London
Chinese tourists in London © Getty

This year may go down in history as the moment when the global balance of economic power shifted dramatically towards China, after Beijing humiliated Washington over the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

But let’s face it, tectonic shifts in the global economic order go largely unnoticed by ordinary mortals. Not so tectonic shifts in the global tourism order: we all care who’s throwing their weight around these days, at the Pyramids or the Louvre. China’s ability to push people around in the queue for Broadway tickets concerns most of us far more than its ability to call the shots over Asian infrastructure finance.

And oddly enough, it’s Beijing that cares most of all. Mainland tourists are an important part of China’s global soft power offensive; if they disgrace themselves abroad, the national image suffers. So the Chinese government has stepped in with measures aimed at forcing mainland travellers to clean up their tourism act.

As President Xi Jinping said on a visit to the Maldives last year: “We should be civilised when travelling abroad. We shouldn’t throw around mineral water bottles or destroy other people’s coral reefs.”

Of course it’s only recently that anyone had to worry about Chinese mineral water bottles. Outbound travel for ordinary citizens was still heavily restricted until the turn of this century. Since then overseas travel has risen tenfold, making China the world’s biggest spender on international travel, with outbound trips numbering 117m last year. Tourist spending totalled Rmb3.1tn ($500bn), according to estimates of China Confidential, a research service of the Financial Times.


Outbound trips in 2014 compared with 97m in 2013 (Source: China’s national tourism board)

And as the numbers have risen, so have newspaper accounts of misbehaviour. In the past few months alone, Chinese newspapers have run accounts of mainland tourists who scalded an AirAsia flight attendant with boiling water in a dispute over seat assignments and whether they had to pay for water for their cup noodles; a mid-flight brawl by four middle-aged women enraged by a crying child; a hair-pulling battle between female passengers over that ever-vexatious issue of how far civilised people should be allowed to recline their seat; and several stories with the recurring theme of travellers who force open aircraft emergency doors “to get some fresh air”.

Then there are the travellers who insist on exercising their inalienable right to skip security checks. And worst of all the tourism headlines, from Beijing’s point of view: the 2013 incident where a Chinese teenager scrawled graffiti on a Luxor temple: an insult to one ancient civilisation from another that should know better.


Tourist spending in 2014 compared with Rmb2.8tn in 2013 (Source: China Confidential)

Dai Bin, head of the China Tourism Academy, points out that air rage is not just a Chinese thing. And since China has more tourists, it naturally has more air rage. Outbound travel is still in its infancy. Change takes time.

A new government requirement is that Chinese tour groups of sufficient (unspecified) size include one “civilised person” to ensure the rest of them behave. “The monitor must have some theories to persuade other tourists,” according to a government commentary, and “the courage to point out when other people are acting in an uncivilised manner and help them correct [those behaviours]”. Good luck with that.

Beijing may run one of the tightest ships around but the average Chinese civilian seems remarkably bad at taking orders. It never ceases to amaze me, for example, how many apparently deaf airline passengers there are in China. They can hear the meal choice just fine but not the instruction to turn off mobile phones or raise their seat backs. One newspaper suggested tourists who already know each other may obey the civilisation monitor, but those who don’t may need to be offered travel discounts to behave well.

It must be enough to make an autocrat weep: what’s the point of authoritarianism if you can’t stop middle-aged women from pulling each other’s hair out in the economy cabin? Still, speaking as a citizen of the world’s previous most hated tourism dynasty, the United States of Ugly Americans, I say: it takes time to get used to being the heavyweight in the room, at the AIIB or the Intercontinental. But no one learns faster than the Chinese: they’ll be reaching for the recycling bins and fighting pitched battles to protect the coral reefs in no time.

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