They are loud and ill-mannered, throw cash around and have little interest or respect for local culture. One or two decades ago this would have been how most people described the archetypal “ugly American” on holiday in Europe or Asia. Today, though, another group is vying for the title of worst-behaved tourist.
More than 70m mainland Chinese citizens travelled overseas last year, making 1.5 trips on average, according to estimates from management consultants McKinsey. Most returned home without causing offence.
However, a stream of media reports and viral videos show unruly and uncouth exceptions, prompting Chinese authorities to publish etiquette guides and even introduce a travel blacklist of the most notorious offenders.
On the list are a couple who assaulted a flight attendant with boiling water, a man who opened the emergency exit of a taxiing aircraft to “get fresh air” and another who assaulted a shop assistant in Japan for asking his wife not to eat food before buying it.
China’s Communist leaders publicly fret that badly behaved tourists are hurting Beijing’s attempts to boost its “soft power” around the world. One of the more comprehensive official etiquette guides elaborates on their concerns.
It forbids Chinese tourists from spitting, smoking in non-smoking venues, queue-jumping, speaking too loudly, taking non-complimentary items from hotels, soiling public bathrooms, “chasing, beating or feeding animals” and “leaving footprints on toilet seats”.
Many of these recommendations feature in a recent cartoon-illustrated guide published by the Hokkaido Tourism Organisation and aimed at the 5m Chinese tourists who flocked to Japan last year. In addition, the Japanese guide helpfully advises Chinese visitors not to steal cutlery from restaurants, break wind in public or keep tour groups waiting while shopping.
That final tip is probably the most relevant since shopping is central for the Chinese on holiday. According to McKinsey, 80 per cent of Chinese tourists will go shopping on holiday and nearly 30 per cent decide their travel destination based on the shopping opportunities available.
This is reflected in the fact that Chinese are by far the biggest-spending tourists — in both absolute and per capita terms.
In the UK, for example, the average Chinese tourist spends far more than double that of the average American.
Despite the Chinese economic downturn this shopping spree shows no sign of slowing. Last year, Chinese tourists spent $215bn abroad, up 53 per cent from 2014, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. That figure is expected to increase to more than $420bn by 2020.
This spending power is already changing the travel experience everywhere, with many countries introducing Chinese signs and announcements in airports.
In some places the changes can be more profound. On the majority-Hindu island of Bali, Indonesia, the enormous influx has quite literally changed the face of God. In the wood and stone carving workshops that proliferate across the resort, the faces of Hindu deities like the elephant-headed Ganesha have been almost entirely replaced by those of chubby laughing Chinese Buddhas and serene Guanyin bodhisattvas.
Despite the fretting of the Chinese government and the news reports highlighting bad behaviour by Chinese tourists, friction with travellers from other places is rare, especially considering their enormous and growing numbers.
This is partly because Chinese tourists generally shun traditional western holiday pastimes like sunbathing, swimming at the beach or public drunkenness and debauchery. They overwhelmingly prefer to eat Chinese food in Chinese restaurants no matter where they are.
The most common places a western tourist will bump into a Chinese tourist or tour group will be at a culturally or historically significant site such as the Louvre or the Colosseum, and it is there they might witness some of the behaviour prohibited in Beijing’s travel etiquette guides.
Increasingly, however, they will also see that it is cosmopolitan and well-travelled Chinese tourists who go out of their way to educate their less well-mannered compatriots and — quite literally — get them back in line.