POSTED: Thursday, April 11, 2013 - 2:00am
UPDATED: Thursday, April 11, 2013 - 2:04am
CNN — It might be the biggest phenomenon to hit the global travel industry since the invention of commercial flight -- Chinese tourism.
The figures are incredible.
By 2015, 100 million Chinese will pack their bags to travel abroad, according to a report from the UN World Tourism Organization.
In 2012, Chinese overtook Americans and Germans as the world's top international tourism spenders, with 83 million people spending a record US$102 billion on international tourism.
Pretty much any country with "Approved Destination Status" -- a bilateral tourism arrangement with China -- has remarkable numbers to throw out on Chinese tourism growth, from the United States to France.
The figures are even more dramatic closer to home. South Korea recently reported that in February, for the first time ever, Chinese tourists overtook Japanese tourists in terms of arrival numbers.
Hong Kong and Thailand cite similar growth.
Great, they're coming! (Now what do we do?)
In response to the boom, global travel operators have been frantically adapting their offerings -- hotels in particular.
Mei Zhang, founder and CEO of Beijing-based travel company WildChina, deals with both inbound and outbound tourists. She says though there are still teething problems, the world's luxury travel industry is taking positive steps toward making Chinese tourists feel at home.
"The Ritz Paris (currently under renovation) has a Chinese concierge," says Zhang. "Shangri-La and the Peninsula -- both considered by Chinese to be somewhat Asian brands -- have restaurants serving Chinese breakfast. They've adjusted their menus.
"In New York, at the Waldorf Astoria, if they know it's a Chinese person arriving they'll give them a tea kettle and a pair of slippers.
"The luxury stores in Paris have equipped themselves with Chinese-speaking staff. Similarly in Asia-Pacific, I was recently at the Four Seasons in Indonesia and they have Chinese menus, guides and guest ambassadors."
It's still not enough, says Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt, director of the privately run China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI), which has offices in Beijing and Heide, Germany.
He says the global travel industry needs to stop relying on old stereotypes about the Chinese and actually listen to what they want.
"If you look at surveys and forums in China, the majority of Chinese people are not satisfied with the service they get when they travel -- especially outside East and Southeast Asia, in areas where there are not as many Chinese, like in Europe or North America," he says.
The solution: Social media
The problem, he adds, is that even when management understands that Chinese outbound tourism is the largest and potentially most important market in the world, this awareness isn't manifesting itself on the front line with service staff who are actually in touch with customers.
"Chinese tourists often say they feel treated like second class people, even when they spend a lot of money," says Arlt.
"When I go to a hotel and have to wait five minutes before I get my key, I never think, 'Oh, they're doing this to me because I'm German.' I think, 'Maybe they need more staff.'
"But Chinese view it as, 'Aha! I knew it, they're making me wait because I'm Chinese and they think they don't need to treat me the same way as the Westerners.'"
This means service providers face the challenge of making Chinese guests feel welcome and comfortable, he says.
Simply adding congee to the breakfast table isn't going to cut it.
The solution, he says, lies in social media.
"There are millions of Chinese everyday writing about their travel experiences and things they don't like," says Arlt.
"They're keen on discussing and sharing their experiences online. It's all there. You just need to have someone Chinese do the data mining."
'New Chinese tourist'
The industry is adapting, acknowledges Arlt, but many big players have yet to recognize that the demographics are quickly shifting.
"The problem is the international tourism industry is slowly catching up with the idea that the Chinese traveler is coming, but in fact the Chinese traveler is already here and they're segmenting," says Arlt.
"You have two kinds of tourists. Package tourists, who are usually first time travelers. They do the eight European countries in 10 days, ticking off the sites. For them the most important thing is to get that shot in front of the Eiffel Tower."
This type of tourist appreciates the congee and hot water kettle, he says.
"But you have a growing number of what we call the 'new Chinese tourist.' People who are better educated, with more travel experience -- most have been students abroad so they know their way around. Self-organized."
It's these tourists who are looking to try the local cuisine and want new experiences, he says, and resent being stereotyped as an ignorant traveler from the countryside who can't live without his instant noodles.
"I think we're maturing in all kinds of areas very fast, be it taste of destination or taste of foreign cuisine," agrees WildChina's Zhang.
"But the majority of [Chinese] tourists still need to develop. One problem area is advance planning. We have few clients who plan six months ahead. So they end up giving last minute requests for Michelin-starred dinners and they just can't get in.
"Then they become unhappy because they think money can get anything. The game in the international market is slightly different. So advance planning is something they're learning."
Tourists behaving badly
No discussion of Chinese tourism would be complete without addressing the backlash now making the rounds in some sectors of the travel industry.
To put this into context, Zhang describes a popular urban legend about a wealthy Chinese tourist who entered a famous luxury boutique in Milan with a lit cigarette.
When asked to put out the cigarette, the woman replied that she'd buy 20 purses if she was allowed to smoke in the shop.
Next thing you know, the woman is handed an ashtray, and the boutique did indeed earn a nice profit that day.
Zhang says allowing that behavior is a double-edged sword.
"Rich Chinese tourists are pushing the boundaries and unfortunately some of these places are bending to their will," she says.
"Particularly the newly rich, who think, 'If I'm paying money then I'm God.'"
Arlt says Chinese are often proud of the fact that they're at the top of the wealth chain, given that the Cultural Revolution is still fresh the minds of people over 40.
"This has happened all in one generation," he says. "Many [Chinese tourists] have parents who didn't have shoes. All this growth happened so fast it's still in living memory.
"Now they're showing the world and themselves: 'I'm strong, I can go spend US$5,000 for nothing, just for my pleasure.'"
And they're more than happy to rub it in the West's face, he adds.
"The Chinese have the idea that since the Opium Wars they've been oppressed and looked down on, so now they're coming back rich," Arlt says.
"This is the fun for them. You toss some coins and Western people dance for you."
The scene is even more charged with emotion in Hong Kong, where mainland Chinese tourists face harsh resentment for a number of issues. Clashes between locals and tourists on public transportation and in restaurants have been caught on video, rapidly gone viral on the Internet and are regular press fodder.
Hong Kong Airlines has even taught its cabin crew kung fu to deal with drunken passengers flying to and from the mainland in light of what it says are continuous issues.
Dr. Yong Chen of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who specializes in Chinese outbound tourism, says all the bad press needs to be taken in context, given how many mainlanders are heading south of the border.
"There were 48 million tourists who came to Hong Kong last year and more than 70 percent of them were Chinese tourists," he says.
"There's no other country with such a high market share in the world."
When posted on the Internet, small, individual problems, like shouting matches on subway trains, have a way of transcending borders.
"Travel is a way of communication between cultures," he says. "Tourism will help people to get better and learn. It's a new experience for them."
Liu Zhen-xiu, a mother from Tianjin visiting Hong Kong with her young daughter, says she notices the resentment.
"We usually stay in five-star hotels, so people in the service industry of course have to be polite and friendly to us," she says.
"I haven't gotten into a situation where I was treated differently or rudely, but I can feel that local people do not welcome mainland tourists."
Learning global cultures
Fauna (who didn't want her last name published) is the founder of popular English-language blog ChinaSMACK, which analyzes and translates online reaction to popular news stories in China.
Responses to stories of Chinese behaving badly while traveling are mixed among China's online community, she says.
"If the focus is on the behavior of the mainland tourist, usually the reaction from mainland Chinese netizens is embarrassment," she says.
"If the focus is on criticisms of mainland Chinese by Hong Kong people or foreigners, then often there is defensiveness -- but also a lot of embarrassment -- and counter-criticism."
Zhang has a similar view, noting that the younger generation and wealthier Chinese are usually unhappy with those who damage the image of Chinese travelers worldwide.
"On the other hand, there is this strong sense of patriotism and a bit of insecurity about our national identity," she says.
"If a non-Chinese points fingers at this kind of behavior, almost all Chinese feel very defensive. They will say, 'That's racist against Chinese.'
"There's the idea that, 'It's my dirty laundry, I know it's smelly and it's OK for me to criticize it, but it's not OK for you to say anything.'"
Zhang says it will take time for attitudes to change, as more Chinese grow accustomed to global cultures.
Naicy Zhang, a Chinese tourist visiting Hong Kong from Dongguan, agrees.
"People are generally helpful, but I know there are differences in cultures between Chinese tourists and others," she says.
"The people here in Hong Kong, for example, are more polite and self-disciplined, they queue up for everything. But in China, no one will ever queue up and they will fight for things. If you wait, you will be left with nothing.
"It's true that Chinese tourists may not understand the local rules and customs in the beginning and make mistakes. But we will learn."
Arlt says too many locals are seeing only the negative side of Chinese tourism.
"The busloads of Chinese people running around and taking a lot of photos and making noise and behaving a bit stupid because this is the first time they're traveling -- these are the more visible tourists," says Arlt.
"The people who have been traveling 10 to 15 years or studied abroad and speak perfect English -- they blend in, so we don't even identify them as Chinese. For the tourism industry, these are the interesting customers."