- - Wednesday, October 16, 2013


The first week of October marks the celebration of a “Golden Week” of public holidays in China, during which millions of Chinese people take vacations, many of which will be taken abroad. Prior to this holiday week, China’s National Tourism Administration publicized on its website a 64-page “Guidebook for Civilized Tourism,” intended to instruct those traveling abroad on how to be “civilized” tourists.

The guide contains an illustrated list of dos and don’ts, including the following: Do not give a handkerchief in Italy as a gift because it is deemed inauspicious. Do use shower curtains in a hotel. Other notable guidelines include advising Chinese nationals not to pick their noses in public, urinate in pools or steal airplane life jackets. The guide also urges tourists to refrain from such (common mainland) behavior such as smoking in nonsmoking areas, discarding trash carelessly and shouting in public. The detailed guide even goes as far as to advise travelers to keep their nose hair neatly trimmed.

The guidebook includes other gems, such as the requirement for women in Spain to always wear earrings in public, or be considered effectively naked, or that when visiting Japan, one should not fidget with hair or clothes in restaurants.

While we could all use a little brushing up on our travel etiquette, the Chinese have traditionally had little practice outside of China. Long a closed and poor nation, the recent accumulation of wealth and increasing list of approved destinations has made the image of the country bumpkin worrisome to Chinese authorities. Other travel tips include the following:

Do not:

Discuss the royal family in Thailand.

Touch people’s belongings in Nepal with the foot.

Ask for pork in Islamic countries.

Call Africans “Negros” or “black.”

Use the left hand to touch other people in India.

In general, touch antiques or draw graffiti on heritage structures.

Expose the chest or back, or look dirty in public areas.

Eat a whole piece of bread in one mouthful or slurp noodles noisily inside an aircraft.


Keep quiet when waiting to board a plane.

Keep mobile phones turned off until the aircraft has come to a complete stop.

Be punctual if taking part in a tour group.

Arrive at a banquet hall 15 minutes early and adhere to a formal dress code.

Why worry? Because in April, the World Trade Organization named China the new No. 1 nation for expenditure when traveling abroad. While travelers in many Western nations are cutting back on travel expenditures, the Chinese spent $102 billion in 2012, and the volume of international trips by Chinese travelers reached 83 million, up from 10 million in 2000. Coupled with the rise of international tourism is the image they project. The Chinese have developed a reputation for uncouth behavior while abroad (even in Hong Kong), and this doesn’t reflect well on Beijing’s attempts to curry soft power abroad.

In May, the authorities appealed to national pride, telling people that “being a civilized tourist is the obligation of each citizen.” That same month there were reports of a mainland Chinese woman who let her son relieve himself in a bottle in a crowded Hong Kong restaurant. In July, a 15-year-old received international condemnation after he wrote graffiti on a wall at Egypt’s Luxor Temple that contained 3,500-year-old hieroglyphics. Chinese visitors to North Korea were recently accused of throwing candy at local children “like they’re feeding ducks.”

All of the above activities, and countless more, have damaged the reputation of Chinese abroad and embarrassed Beijing. Vice Prime Minister Wang Yang recently warned that Chinese tourists were developing a stereotype of “uncivilized behavior,” which is damaging the “image of the Chinese people.” Some knowledgeable Chinese readers may point to the example of the Ugly American traveling abroad, whose loud talk and ignorance of local etiquette earned him a similar reputation.

Some expatriates living in China may argue the guidelines are pointless — the mainland Chinese will continue to jump the cues, ignore pedestrian rights while driving and smoke in hospitals despite no-smoking laws. However, arguing that Americans have always been ugly travelers or that mainlanders can’t change their behavior are no excuses for uncivilized behavior by any nationality. If the Chinese are indeed interested in building up soft power, Beijing needs to educate its traveling masses on proper behavior. After all, each traveler, whether they acknowledge it or not, is an ambassador for his or her nation.

Gary Sands is managing director of Highway West Capital Advisors, a private-equity advisory based in Shanghai, and is a frequent contributor to the South China Morning Post.

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