There has been a lot of talk in the media recently about “rude” Chinese tourists, citing numerous high-profile incidents of bad behavior in recent months.
Recent examples, which have sparked a firestorm of commentary in both Chinese and Western media, include a group of snorkelers who caught and ate endangered sea creatures off the Paracel Islands, visitors to North Korea who threw candy at North Korean children as if they were “feeding ducks”, swimmers who took pictures with a dying dolphin, and a teenage boy from Nanjing who scratched graffiti on a 3,000 year-old relic while touring Egypt with his parents.
In response, Chinese officials are making a concerted effort to improve the behavior of Chinese travelers abroad, issuing a list of guidelines that include no spitting, cutting lines, or taking your shoes and socks off in public. Vice Premier Wang Yang has stated that “improving the civilized quality of the citizens” is necessary for “building a good image” for the country.
Like many commentators, I am not convinced that Chinese travelers on the whole behave worse than other groups when abroad. We Yanks, along with our German and Israeli friends, for instance, have long suffered poor reputations when traveling. My personal worst embarrassment for a compatriot happened in Rome, where I witnessed a loud American in a cowboy hat, black socks, and sandals look down at the Roman Forum and say to his wife, “more ruins—if you’ve seen one ruin, you’ve seen them all.”
The question of whether the actions the Chinese government is addressing are actually a widespread problem have already been discussed at length, to no avail. To me, there is a deeper lesson to be learned from the story: one which luxury brands, retailers, and service providers from around the world can engage in and capitalize on.
Quite simply, the lesson is: while the media likes to sensationalize a few isolated incidents of bad behavior, there are obviously far more Chinese travelers interested in learning about how to have the most sophisticated experience they can find. With tens of millions of newly wealthy travelers leaving the country every year, luxury companies have the opportunity to expose China’s new world citizens to local foods, beverages, fashion, hospitality, and experiences they may not have had.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the number of Chinese travelers increased from 10 million in 2000 to 83 million in 2012. At Tompkins Intl., we estimate that number to grow to more than 100 million within 2 years.
It is important to remember though that many of these Chinese business and pleasure travelers have little or no experience in international travel. This may lead to cultural misunderstandings, but it also an opportunity for luxury companies to play a vital role in educating travelers about the best their brands have to offer.
Any traveler is curious about the world and wants to see and feel the places they have seen on TV, online, and at the movies, and from UN statistics, Chinese travelers particularly want to spend a lot of money while doing it: in 2005, “China ranked seventh in international tourism expenditure, and has since successively overtaken Italy, Japan, France and the United Kingdom,” says a UNWTO report. By 2012, “China leaped to first place, surpassing both top spender Germany and second largest spender United States (both close to US$84 billion in 2012).”
Chinese travelers from the emerging middle, upper, and wealthy classes are still very much in a phase of development where they are seeking instruction and cues on how to build their sense of identity and their “personal brand”, with tastes informed by a mix of Chinese and Western cultures, aesthetics, and lifestyles.
Conspicuous consumption among Chinese tourists is increasingly losing ground to a new desire for sophisticated travel experiences. These consumers certainly don’t fit the stereotype of the Chinese tourist lined up outside a luxury goods store: rather, they want to impart to others their newly found sophistication by the wines they drink, the new foods they have tried, the hotels and resorts they stay at, the niche brands they wear, and the special experiences they have engaged in.
Luxury companies can prosper by not only selling products, but by educating these consumers about the particular lifestyle their brands represent.
With close to 60 percent of Chinese luxury purchases taking place outside the mainland, smart luxury companies can and should take the opportunity to educate Chinese consumers on how to build an identity through their experiences in foreign travel and thus retain brand loyalty when they return home from their travels. Some examples include:
- The cosmetics retailer who can hold a special private event for Chinese luxury travelers to educate them on products, “looks”, how to shop smartly for cosmetics around the world, and how they can keep up the look at home by obtaining the same product locally.
- The hotel which holds special events or provides pre- or in-trip collateral material for Chinese travelers on food, wine, and local attractions while subtly including “live, look, and act like a local” messaging into their programs. These extra touches may be the deciding factor for Chinese travelers choosing one five-star location over another, both domestically and abroad.
- The high-end fishing and wildlife excursion company in Alaska which gives Chinese consumers a sense of place and custom by providing general and culture-specific lessons about the ecology and landscape the traveler is in, in addition to providing a luxury lodge, great meals, and superb fishing.
Chinese travelers carry the same needs and desires with them on the road that they have at home. Luxury companies can build their brand, sell products and services, and retain customers by tapping into these needs and desires and rounding out the travel experience with life experience and an education in global sophistication.