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Despite their infamous reputation for committing a slew of “uncivilized” behaviors — from destroying Malaysian marine life to trashing South Korean airports to stealing Japanese toilet seats — Chinese travelers have been making the biggest contributions to global tourism since 2012. Just last year, they spent a whopping $261 billion on overseas travel, a 12% increase from 2015 according to figures from the U.N.
Sadly, China seems unable to get any love back. According to a new report from the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), a think tank based in Beijing, the country’s number of inbound tourists only grew by 1% per year between 2005 and 2015, a rate that lags behind those of both developed and developing countries.
The researchers found that over 60% of foreigners visiting China came from Asia, particularly Japan and South Korea. In addition, they observed that in 2015, excluding visitors from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, Chinese tourists made 30 million more overseas trips than foreign travelers made to China.
Report co-author Miao Lu claimed that there wasn’t much change last year. She told South China Morning Post:
“Take away the three areas [Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan], and there was a big number of foreign tourists who were actually Chinese nationals living abroad. So the number of foreign visitors was really small, which is inconsistent with China’s growth in general.”
What could be shunning foreign tourists from visiting China — a country with a rich, 5,000-year history — then? For Simon van Hout, a Dutchman, it could be concerns about the country’s pollution and food safety. Its “airpocalypse,” in particular, has been long been reported to ward foreigners off.
“When I first came to China 1½ years ago, I was afraid of three things: the air pollution, the water pollution and the food,” he told SCMP before comparing neighboring destinations. “Japan, for example, has the reputation of being cool. When people think of Japan, they think of hi-tech, and Korea too. China seems more foreign, more scary and less hip.”
Such perception appears to have permeated even the psyche of businesses. In April, Dolce & Gabbana sparked outrage in Chinese social media for revealing Beijing’s “ugly side” in a photoshoot, with many pointing how the Italian label created such contrast when it chose to highlight Tokyo’s modern urban life in an earlier campaign.
Speaking to SCMP, Debbie van As, a South African, echoed the negative assumptions:
“China has always been reported as being dirty, polluted, not very nice people, suspicious foods, language problems. I was told all of these things before I came here.”
“Because of internet restrictions, viz. a lack of advertising, China doesn’t get the coverage like other Southeast Asian countries and therefore [potential visitors] continue to believe that China is only about the bad — and the only tourist attraction is the Great Wall,” she added.
Needless to say, China has been exerting efforts to boost its image as an enjoyable tourist destination. Those who wish to walk on the world’s highest and longest glass bridge, ride on the world’s longest sight-seeing escalator and glide the world’s largest indoor ski resort, to name a few, are in for some adventure.
The country’s performance in inbound tourism for the current year is yet to be seen, but with more attractions and services in clean energy, transportation and technology coming soon, its future can only be more than promising.