Chinese Tourists in the Americas

This is a lesson about overreaching your expertise.  Andres Oppenheimer writes a twice-weekly opinion column for the Miami Herald, which is the closest thing to a pan-Latin American newspaper (with both English- and Spanish-language editions).  He is sufficiently influential that even presidents take his phone calls.  But in this article, he overreaches and shows his poor grasp of the details of situation.

Andres Oppenheimer's angle on the world is that free trade will solve all the problems of the world: hunger, pollution, corruption, human rights abuse, narco-trafficking, guerilla movements, terrorism, religious conflicts, socio-economic inequality, racism, and anything else that you care to name.  The subject of this particular column is the Chinese tourists coming to the Americas and all the money that they can bring to the local economies.

The research that was done by Andres Oppenheimer included such gems as "most Chinese tourists have traveled to Macao, South Korea and Australia."  Neither he nor his newspaper's factcheckers are aware that Macao is part of China under the formal name of the Macau Special Administrative Region of China.  If Oppenheimer was ready to nominate Macao, then he should have named Hong Kong too, where more 400,000 visitors from China are expected on the golden week around October 1st.

Why aren't the Chinese tourists coming to the United States in large numbers?  Oppenheimer asked the US government agencies and got the runaround.  But he did his homework from the Chinese side: "A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said the United States restricts visas to Chinese citizens, suggesting that there is no major U.S. interest in attracting Chinese tourists."  Well, if only he had bothered to find out about the practical experience of getting a US visa, like navigating the famous toll-unfree telephone system (see People's Daily) at an obscene 54 yuan for 12 minutes.

But the worst part of his column is that last paragraph.  Would any Chinese tourist come to the Americas to get that kind of attitude?  Whatever happened to customer courtesy, focus and satisfaction?

(Miami Herald)  Why isn't U.S. angry over China's tourism policies?  By Andres Oppenheimer.  September 12, 2004.  

Here is something the United States and Latin America should begin looking at: getting a slice of the 100 million Chinese tourists a year who are expected to flood the world in the not so distant future.

Last week, China added 27 European countries to its list of ''approved destinations'' for Chinese people to travel abroad in package tours. France, Italy, Spain, Sweden and other European countries are now among 54 countries in the world approved to receive Chinese travel groups, but neither the United States nor any major Latin American country is on the list.

It's a big deal, involving billions of dollars, which for some reason has not yet caught the public eye in this part of the world. While individual Chinese citizens can theoretically travel wherever they want, the Chinese government makes such trips cumbersome and expensive. Most Chinese tourists travel abroad in package tours, Chinese government reports show.

China already is one of the world's most rapidly growing sources of outbound tourism: According to the World Tourism Organization, which monitors the industry's trends, more than 20 million Chinese will travel abroad this year. The number will increase to more than 100 million by 2020.

Until now, most Chinese tourists have traveled to Macao, South Korea and Australia. But we will soon see millions of Chinese tourists shopping in Europe. France alone expects 1.5 million Chinese tourists next year, according to French press reports.

''China is already a larger source of outbound tourists than Japan,'' said Augusto Huesca, a senior official with the WTO, in a telephone interview from Madrid, Spain. "By 2020, we expect China to be among the four or five largest sources of outbound tourism in the world.''

The Chinese government, in an effort to prevent a major surge of capital outflow, allows tourists to take only up to $5,000 when they travel abroad.

''The Chinese love shopping,'' a WTO study on China's outbound tourism says. "They admire famous brands and commodities with local characteristics, such as articles made of crocodile skin in Thailand, gold or silverware in Hong Kong -- [and] garments and handbags of famous brands in Europe.''

Incredibly, despite the current spat between the United States and China over the $125 billion U.S. trade deficit with China, the Bush administration is not raising hell about the U.S. exclusion from the Chinese list of ''approved'' destinations.

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said the United States restricts visas to Chinese citizens, suggesting that there is no major U.S. interest in attracting Chinese tourists.

When I called the Commerce Department, whose secretary, Donald Evans, recently called on the Chinese to ''show more cooperation and less manipulation'' in world trade, a press official referred me to the U.S. Trade Representative's Office, which in turn referred me to the State Department.

A State Department official, after looking into the matter, told me that "as far as I can tell, it's not an issue that we have raised with the Chinese in the context of trade talks.''

On the other hand, U.S. officials are voicing concern about a different kind of Chinese visitor to this part of the world: A 127-man Chinese police unit, specializing in riot control, is scheduled to join United Nations peacekeeping troops in Haiti later this month.

It will be the first time China has participated with such a big police unit in such a mission anywhere in the world.

The Chinese military also will send six 20-man boats, and has offered a helicopter support unit. According to U.S. officials, it's part of a long-term Chinese plan to gain diplomatic influence in Latin America -- and to undermine U.S. clout in the region.

''For anyone who cares about democracy, transparency, rule of law and human rights, the Chinese arrival in this region is not good news,'' a U.S. official told me. China already is the biggest backer of Cuba and Venezuela in world forums, the official said.

Indeed, something is going on here.

Chinese presidents have visited six Western Hemisphere countries since 2001, U.S. officials say. The next time a Chinese president shows up, somebody should tell him to put the United States and Latin America on his government's list of ''approved'' travel destinations.

It's bad enough for us to be among the major trading partners of a dictatorship that allows slave-like work conditions, tolerates child labor, represses dissent and controls its people's right to travel. It's even worse when that regime doesn't allow us to benefit from its country's 100 million outbound tourism bonanza.

This is totally against Andres Oppenheimer's beloved concept of free trade.  He would like to remove all trade barriers, and then let consumers make free choices.  But why would any Chinese person visit places where the local people hold them in such contempt?  How about showing less bitterness and more warmth?  After all, this is known as the hospitality industry ...

(Associated Press)  China's travel revolution ripples across the world.  By John Leicester.  October 31, 2004.

After the whirl of rush hour traffic, stops for snapshots and a meal of rice, soup and fatty pork, Chen Guolin finally got to relax in the verdant gardens of Chateau Fontainebleau, where Napoleon luxuriated between military campaigns.

She'd been touched, she said, by the almost accentless "ni hao" — hello in Chinese — with which French ground staff welcomed her at Charles de Gaulle airport when her group arrived the previous evening. And she marveled at Fontainebleau's tranquility.

"If this was China, there would be people everywhere," she said.

Above all, her first day ever outside China had taught her a lesson: Just seeing Paris, first stop on a 15-day swing through France and Spain, confirmed to her that her homeland is on the rise.

"I really don't feel as if there's any difference between the outside world and China," said Chen, a construction engineer in a smart navy-blue A-line skirt. "Seeing overseas makes you love your country even more."

Trip by trip, a Chinese tourism revolution is doing as much as diplomacy and billions of dollars of trade to build bridges between China and the West.

Armed with digital cameras and videocams, and still connected to home by their cell phones, Chinese with a pent-up hunger for fresh experiences, cultures and shopping are heading in droves to countries that a few decades back were as inaccessible to most of them as the moon.

Last year, Chinese for the first time overtook Japanese as Asia's biggest travelers, making 20.2 million visits, China's tourism administration says.

Europe is bracing for a Chinese surge after a tourism pact that simplifies visa procedures for Chinese tour groups and allows Chinese travel agents to advertise European destinations.

The impact of the agreement, which went into effect on Sept. 1, promises to be dramatic: France, the world's top tourist destination, expects to attract as many as 1.5 million Chinese next year, from the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 who visited in 2003.

Through travel, Chinese are learning about the world, themselves and their country, and teaching the world a little about China and its march to modernity.

"Apart from the language, I really don't feel like I've left home. The stores are as smart as back home, just more expensive," said Hua Mingwei, a 51-year-old Chinese tourist stocking up on perfume with his wife at the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris.

Their sole gripe: Hotels didn't provide hot drinking water.

"They need to think about catering more to Chinese tastes," said Hua. "We don't drink cold water."

Poverty, history, culture and politics long conspired to delay the advent of mass Chinese tourism, whose effects are now being felt from Paris to Auckland, Las Vegas to Sydney.

As recently as 15 years ago, when cheaper air travel was unlocking the world to Western tourists, the few coming from China were mostly state representatives and people with relatives overseas. For most Chinese, life beyond the Great Wall was glimpsed largely through the prism of television and other media all controlled by a Communist Party long suspicious of the West.

And who could afford foreign travel when telephones, televisions, or even bicycles were luxuries? Getting passports was a bureaucratic obstacle course. The government wasn't keen on travelers squandering precious hard currency overseas and returning — if they returned at all — with dazzling tales of the West's luxuries and freedoms.

No longer.

Capitalist reforms and stunning economic growth have brought skiing in Korea, golfing in Nevada, shopping in Tokyo and dining in France within reach of millions of middle-class Chinese.

They still call China "Zhongguo," the Middle Kingdom, center of the world. But as well as cars and IKEA furniture, they want albums of souvenir photos from overseas and are the targets of ads like this one in the Shanghai Morning Post: "Seclusion in a castle, in the forest, in a log cabin. Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg. Eight Days for Five European Countries for under 10,000 yuan!"

That's $1,210, roughly what Hu Jie likely paid for the Japanese camera with which he merrily shot photos at Fontainebleau. A manager with a Chinese air conditioning firm, he's an experienced traveler, having previously worked in France. He led the group of 22 people that included Chen, the engineer.

The day began with introductions to their bus driver, Andrew. "An-de-lu. An-de-lu," some of the visitors murmured, memorizing his name.

Talk then quickly turned to life in Europe as Paris rolled past the windows. But these were hard customers. Last night's hotel wasn't up to the standards of those in China, said one. The streets are cleaner at home, said another. And the Champs-Elysees, which the French call the world's most beautiful boulevard? Not as wide as the Avenue of Heavenly Peace that scythes through Beijing, they scoffed.

"China's got 5,000 years of history. When you travel overseas, you realize that other countries can't compete," said Song Deliang, on his second trip to Europe.

By 2020, the World Tourism Organization predicts, Chinese will be the world's fourth most prolific travelers, taking 100 million trips, trailing the United States, Germany and Japan, which is expected to make a tourism comeback after a four-year slump.

That makes China a market tourism officials and hoteliers cannot ignore.

"Their economy, their wealth, their ability and their inclination to travel is very, very strong," Bruce Bommarito, executive director of the Nevada Commission on Tourism, said in a telephone interview. He has spent 18 months learning basic Chinese. "It's very important that we stay at the top of the curve," he said.

At least one Novotel in Paris has introduced Chinese TV and restaurant menus, hot drinking water heaters, a Chinese receptionist, and breakfasts of rice porridge and noodles.

Only the Chinese habit of spitting — in plates, cups or ashtrays — poses problems, said deputy manager Patrick Chmielewksi.

Conversely, Chen and others in her group were irritated that Fontainebleau offered no Chinese-language tour or audio guides to steer them through the sumptuous rooms and history. "It's such a shame. We have come such a long way," Chen said.

But Emaury Lefebure, the chateau's director, says free Chinese-language leaflets will be ready for next summer. And thus again, tourism will have built bridges.

"It's important that cultures mix. In the rest of the world, people have no concept of the Chinese. But we're just like everybody else," said Zhang Jiaping, 73, another engineer in Chen's group. "When you travel and meet people, they understand that."

(New York Times)  Chinese Move to Eclipse U.S. Appeal in Southeast Asia.  By Jane Perlez.  November 18, 2004.

In pagoda-style buildings donated by the Chinese government to the university here, Long Seaxiong, 19, stays up nights to master the intricacies of Mandarin.

The sacrifice is worth it, he says, and the choice of studying Chinese was an easy one over perfecting his faltering English. China, not America, is the future, he insists, speaking for many of his generation in Asia.

"For a few years ahead, it will still be the United States as No. 1, but soon it will be China," Mr. Long, the son of a Thai businessman, confidently predicted as he showed off the stone, tiles and willow trees imported from China to decorate the courtyard at the Sirindhorn Chinese Language and Culture Center, which opened a year ago.

The center is part of China's expanding presence across Southeast Asia and the Pacific, where Beijing is making a big push to market itself and its language, similar to the way the United States promoted its culture and values during the cold war. It is not a hard sell, particularly to young Asians eager to cement cultural bonds as China deepens its economic and political interests in the region.

Put off from visiting the United States by the difficulty of gaining visas after 9/11, more and more Southeast Asians are traveling to China as students and tourists. Likewise, Chinese tourists, less fearful than Americans of the threat of being targets of terrorism, are becoming the dominant tourist group in the region, outnumbering Americans in places like Thailand and fast catching up to the ubiquitous Japanese.

As the new Chinese tourists from the rapidly expanding middle class travel, they carry with them an image of a vastly different and more inviting China than even just a few years ago, richer, more confident and more influential. "Among some countries, China fever seems to be replacing China fear," said Wang Gungwu, the director of the East Asian Institute at National University in Singapore.

Over all, China's stepped up endeavors in cultural suasion remain modest compared with those of the United States, and American popular culture, from Hollywood movies to MTV, is still vastly more exportable and accessible, all agree. The United States also holds the balance of raw military power in the region.

But the trend is clear, educators and diplomats here say: the Americans are losing influence.  
As China ramps up its cultural and language presence, Washington is ratcheting down, ceding territory that was virtually all its own when China was trapped in its hard Communist shell.

"The Chinese are actively expanding their public diplomacy while we are cutting back or just holding our own," said Paul Blackburn, a former public affairs officer of the United States Information Service who served at four American embassies in Asia in the 1980's and 90's.

China Radio International, with light fare and upbeat news and features, now broadcasts in English 24 hours a day, while Voice of America broadcasts 19 hours and will soon be cut back to 14 hours, he said.

CCTV-9, China's flagship English-language television channel, which features suave news anchors and cultural and entertainment shows, is broadcast worldwide. America may have CNN International, but in the realm of public policy, the United States has "nothing comparable," Mr. Blackburn says.

Across Southeast Asia, American centers run by the State Department's United States Information Service, which once offered English-language training and library services, were closed and staff was slashed as part of the worldwide cutbacks in the 1990's.

The impact is still being felt. In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, the three United States information centers were shut. A new program, "American Corners," provides books, computers and databases for a handful of Indonesian university libraries, but it has less impact, American diplomats said.

As Washington cuts back, China is providing concrete alternatives. The Chinese president and Communist Party chief, Hu Jintao, made clear the importance of China's cultural offensive to Beijing when he addressed the Australian Parliament last year.

"The Chinese culture belongs not only to the Chinese but also to the whole world," he grandly offered. "We stand ready to step up cultural exchanges with the rest of the world in a joint promotion of cultural prosperity."

The invitation is being accepted by growing numbers of Asian students who are taking advantage of proliferating opportunities for higher education in China. No longer are status-conscious Asian families mortified if their children fail to qualify for elite American universities, parents say. A berth in a Chinese university is seen as a pragmatic solution, even if the quality of the instruction falls short of the top American schools.

In Malaysia, students of non-Chinese background are flocking to primary schools where Chinese is taught, a reversal of a more than three-decade trend, said N. C. Siew, the editor of the country's major Chinese-language newspaper, Sin Chew Daily.

In Indonesia, the elite long favored American universities. The founding generation of government technocrats was called the "Berkeley mafia" because so many were graduates from the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

Today, the numbers tell a startling story, especially in Indonesia, an American ally where relations with China have been historically difficult.

Last year, 2,563 Indonesian students received visas to go to China for study, according to the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta, a 51 percent increase over the previous year.  By comparison, only 1,333 Indonesian students received visas for study in the United States in 2003, the United States consul general in Jakarta says. That was a precipitous drop from the 6,250 student visas the office said it issued in 2000 and part of a worldwide decline after 9/11.

Although many educators in Southeast Asia welcome the new openness to China, even longtime friends of the United States say China's influence appears to be growing at America's expense.

"You are losing ground, that's a fact of life," said Prof. Tanun Anumanrajadhon, the vice president of international affairs at Chiang Mai University. "People here are talking of China and economics. People don't care about democracy now."

The difference in ambition is noticeable, others say.  "China wants to be more influential here to replace America," Vanchai Sirichana, the president of Mae Fah Luang University, where the Sirindhorn Chinese culture center was opened early this year under the patronage of the Thai royal family. "China is very aggressive in terms of contributions."

Mr. Vanchai said he had proposed a balancing act to the American ambassador to Thailand, Darryl Johnson.  "I said, what about collaboration between the American government and universities in this area, because our door is open," Mr. Vanchai said, describing a conversation when Mr. Johnson visited the campus this year.

"He just laughed; there was no answer," Mr. Vanchai said, indicating that the ambassador's reaction was one of sorrow.  A diplomat on Mr. Johnson's staff confirmed the incident. He said the ambassador's hands were tied; there was no money coming from Washington.

Outgoing and articulate, Ngoh Eng Hong, 28, is as good a weather vane as any to read the shifting cultural winds in the region.  She is one of the stars of the Economic Development Board in Singapore, a powerful government body that encourages foreign investment in the island. Its staff is handpicked from among the tiny nation's smartest brains.

After she returned to Singapore in 1999 with two degrees in engineering from the United States, one from Stanford University, her bosses still felt she needed to top up with a degree from China. They sent her to Fudan University in Shanghai for a master's in business administration, from a program jointly run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It is what you learn about them as people that is so important," Ms. Ngoh said of her experiences there. "People say the Chinese are very intelligent. When you are there, you see what that means: they are very streetwise."

Ms. Ngoh says she has no question where China is headed. "The world revolved around the United States for a very long time," she said in an interview. "I think people are beginning to understand that one day China can become another superpower."

That view is more and more common in this part of the world. It is a measure of what many see as a leveling playing field between the United States and China.

Today, while the Singapore government still sends a handful of students on scholarships to the top universities in the United States and Britain, it has introduced a parallel program to send equal numbers of its best students to China and India.

"People looked down on China," said Jessie Yak, who recently returned from Beijing, where she studied the Chinese language. "Now there is a 180-degree change. In the past, experience in the United States was important; now experience in China is just as good."

The cultural exchange flows both ways. Middle-class Chinese students whose parents cannot afford the steep fees in the United States are coming to campuses in Southeast Asia.

At Assumption University in Bangkok, Chinese enrollment was only 50 students five years ago. This year, 800 Chinese students are studying there. Most of the Chinese students pay $2,000 to $3,000 in annual fees, said Kamol Kitsawad, the registrar.

Singapore, considered an educational center for the region, is attracting Chinese students at all levels, from primary school through high school and beyond.

Chew Soon-Beng, the director of the Master of Science in Managerial Economics program at Nanyang Technological University, teaches mayors and provincial deputy governors from China. On a recent day, his students pondered questions like how to transform a country's free education system into a fee-paying system. They also discussed conflict of interest issues in government, a problem dealt with in different ways in Singapore and China. This summer, 51 Chinese officials graduated with a degree.

What's in it for Singapore?  "Singapore is always pragmatic," Professor Chew said. "In the past, the main engine of growth was Europe, Japan and the United States. We're trying to hitch on to the new engine."

Thirty years ago, as their nation's economy began to boom, Japanese tourists discovered the world, starting with Asia. Today, after more than a decade of galloping economic expansion, the Chinese are following suit.

In the last several years, Chinese tourists have started to catch up to Japanese tourists in the region. In Thailand, a favorite country for tourists of all kinds, more than 800,000 Chinese travelers visited in 2002, compared with just over a million Japanese, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association. Last year, Chinese tourists to Thailand outnumbered American, the association said.

The new Chinese travelers range from low-income workers on package trips arranged by their factories to individual high rollers.  They are taking in the transvestite shows in the seedy resort town of Pattaya, south of Bangkok. They are tasting Hindu culture in Bali. They are buying emerald-encrusted cellphones in Singapore.

Similarly, Asian tourists are going to China, just a short plane ride away, and knitting the region together. Fashion conscious, business-driven young Asians view warp-speed Shanghai as a new version of Manhattan.

Two billboards at the entrance to the Jakarta airport in Indonesia illustrate the juxtaposition: Manhattan in the form of the Empire State Building is featured on an advertisement for Singapore Airlines; Shanghai with its soaring skyline is the image for the express delivery service DHL. Until very recently, such equality in symbolism was unheard of.

Strikingly, it is not only China's mega-cities that are appealing to Asian tourists.  SilkAir, the Singapore Airlines regional carrier, runs advertisements aimed at young executives in Singapore, suggesting that they take a break in rural China.

One panel of the ad shows a frazzled 20-something man toiling behind his computer late at night. "Need to unwind?" asks the caption. The other side shows the man, dressed in chinos, snoozing on the banks of the Min River, in Fujian Province, fishing rod beside him.

"The advantage of China is its proximity and the cultural experience," said Edmund Chua, regional director for the Singapore Tourism Board in Shanghai.  Nearly 600,000 Chinese tourists had arrived in Singapore by August this year. A decade ago, the number was just 165,000 Chinese.

Singapore sells itself to the Chinese in the way that Fort Lauderdale appeals to some Americans: not too far away, relatively safe, familiar food. But sometimes, the most popular attractions for Chinese tourists are what they cannot find at home.

On a warm evening recently, busloads of Chinese tourists made the pilgrimage to Pattaya, the Thai beach resort.  They stayed at a favorite hotel for Chinese tourists, the clean yet inexpensive Golden Beach Hotel ($14 a room), and piled into Tiffany, a transvestite cabaret show. The Tiffany dancers are costumed in extravagant gowns that they never remove: the show conveys a hint of the risqu้ but not more.  Afterward, some of the Chinese tourists posed for snapshots with the transvestites, $1 a shot.

Alice Wang, 32, an office manager in Guangdong, was on one of the buses. "I didn't come just for the sex show like the other tourists," she said.  Her main aim, she said, was some high-end shopping, including a crocodile handbag from a Bangkok store, a pastime once limited to monied Hong Kong businessmen. But not anymore.  "Its fun," she said. "I've already been to the U.S. and India."

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