Little attention has been given to one spectacular story out of China these days: the massive numbers of Chinese tourists who are spreading out around the globe. And the rest of the world finds itself overwhelmed and largely unprepared for the growing onslaught of happy Chinese masses eager to spend and explore.
The United Nations’ World Tourism Organization reports that about 120 million Chinese traveled abroad as tourists in 2015, by far the largest number from one country. To put this in perspective, only 4 million Chinese tourists ventured outside the country in 1995, and just six years ago in 2009 the total was still only 48 million. In the short span of 20 years, the number of Chinese tourists traveling abroad increased thirtyfold.
Many countries are finding it difficult to cope with the influx. In some countries, such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, the locals have found the Chinese tourists to be more loquacious and unruly than tourists from other countries. There are also language barriers, as most Chinese tourists have little or no prior exposure to foreign cultures in general, and foreign languages in particular.
Most Chinese tourists are found to be more shoppers than tourists as they tend to spend a lot of money to buy merchandise in foreign countries and bring them back home. Chinese tourists have often emptied store shelves in Japan and South Korea, to the delight of local shopkeepers.
Foreign travel has not only become a national fad, it has also fundamentally changed the way Chinese people spend their holidays. In 2014, more Chinese tourists, roughly 60 percent, traveled abroad for their holidays than traveled to other parts of their own country.
This week is the Chinese New Year, a national holiday, and more than 6 million Chinese tourists are heading off to foreign countries to celebrate the holiday, with South Korea, Australia, Japan and Thailand being among the favored destinations.
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But the army of Chinese tourists have also brought law-and-order problems to many countries. Local residents have complained about unhygienic habits of some Chinese tourists, who also are said to be prone to temperamental outbursts and a penchant for fiery fistfights on airplanes and in hotels. Unfamiliar with foreign cultures, many Chinese tourists fall victim to local swindlers, pickpockets and all sort of other petty criminals.
Since 2014, the influx of Chinese tourists to Paris has been so large and the problems so daunting that the French government has asked Beijing to send Chinese police to patrol the streets in the French capital to serve and protect the Chinese throng.
Yet, the booming international tourism for the Chinese has also revealed a major national embarrassment too: the very low number of countries that are willing to grant ordinary Chinese citizens visa waivers for traveling abroad. That low number, in the eyes of many, poignantly demonstrates the very limited appeal of China’s soft power and international prestige.
Despite that, Chinese government officials, perpetually obsessed with proving the all-round greatness of the socialist motherland led by a forever glorious and infallible Communist Party, have repeatedly claimed an ever-increasing number of countries have granted Chinese citizens visa waiver privileges.
Just last Friday, the chief of Chinese Foreign Ministry’s consular affairs division told the nation that “any Chinese citizen who holds a regular passport can travel to 53 countries without a visa, or can get a visa on the spot after landing at these countries’ ports of entry.” The Foreign Ministry also helpfully published a chart of these 53 countries which also indicates what types of visas are waived.
The nation exploded in disbelief: Most of the 53 countries listed on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s own website only waive visa requirement for Chinese official and diplomatic passport holders, not for the holders of “regular” passports, also known as tourist passports. Only 6 of the 53 countries — the Bahamas, Fiji, Grenada, Mauritius, Seychelles and San Marino — waive visa requirements for ordinary Chinese travelers.
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Critics have not missed the opportunity to point out the cool reception for Chinese tourists.
Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou is fond of highlighting the disparity of soft power between Taiwan and China. While only 23 countries diplomatically recognize Taiwan, ordinary citizens in the island democracy can travel to 129 countries, such as the U.S. and Japan, without visas, as opposed to the tiny number of countries for China, which is diplomatically recognized by 172 countries in the world.
A recent survey by the Henley and Partners, a global residence and citizenship planning firm, puts countries such as the U.S., Britain, Finland, Germany and Sweden at the top of the list for passport prestige, with citizens of those nations with regular passports able to travel visa-free to 174 countries. Canadians and Danes are right behind at 173 countries.
Hong Kong ranks 15th and Taiwan 24th on the Henley list. China is way down in 84th place.
Apparently, when it comes to a visa, China does not have the master card.
• Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @Yu_miles.