Tourism, a nat­u­ral miscellany of mishaps

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

When I worked as a tour guide in the early 1980s, the stan­dard China tour started in­Hong Kong and ended in Bei­jing. Hong Kong, which was a bustling Bri­tish colony at the time, was the start­ing point for much­cov­eted vis­its to the main­land that was just be­gin­ning to open to the out­side world.

In those days, the bulk of tourists were from the United States and Europe; there were few Asians on the road other than Ja­pan tours and in­di­vid­ual trav­el­ers from Hong Kong. For those of us keen on see­ing the “real” China and trav­el­ing far and wide, Hong Kong trav­el­ers were to be en­vied.

With their huix­i­angzheng, or “Home Re­turn Per­mit” they could travel with­out a pass­port or visa and use a wider range of fa­cil­i­ties and eater­ies than were avail­able to for­eign vis­i­tors. The in­ex­pen­sive ren­minbi econ­omy was be­yond the grasp of most tourists, though re­source­ful for­eign stu­dents of­ten found ways to get around this.

It was a golden age forHong Kong trav­el­ers, both in terms of be­ing warmly re­ceived in the main­land as com­pa­tri­ots, and in eco­nomic terms when it came to stretch­ing money, scor­ing deals and shop­ping. Rel­a­tives were re­warded, friend­ships were made and ideas were ex­changed.

Fast-for­ward to the present mo­ment and it’s a dif­fer­ent world. Hong Kong no longer looms as the myth­i­cal “Emer­ald City” in the Chi­nese imag­i­na­tion and the wealth dif­fer­en­tial is gone. NowHong Kong is an in­te­gral part of China un­der the “One Coun­try, Two Sys­tems” pol­icy and the main­land has be­come rich and pros­per­ous.

Ev­ery gen­er­a­tion pro­duces its loud, ob­nox­ious tourists with money to burn. The prob­lem with cur­rent spate of tourist ten­sions be­tween Hong Kong and the main­land is not one of char­ac­ter or cul­tural dif­fer­ence— but rather more the dis­com­fort of the shoe be­ing on the other foot. The easy, breezy, con­de­scen­sion Hong Kongers once might have felt to­wards their im­pov­er­ished kith

and kin on the main­land is hard to up­hold in the face of so many peo­ple with so much money.

China is pro­duc­ing newly wealthy peo­ple faster and in greater num­bers than any­where. It’s not the whole story, many peo­ple in China con­tinue to work hard and live by fru­gal means, but with even a small frac­tion of a bil­lion peo­ple trav­el­ing, toes are nat­u­rally go­ing to be stepped on. It is nat­u­ral and to some ex­tent un­avoid­able that tourism should cre­ate a miscellany of mishaps and cul­tur­ally in­cor­rect be­hav­ior, be­cause tourists, al­most by def­i­ni­tion, are ig­no­rant about the places they are vis­it­ing.

Awk­ward in­ter­cul­tural in­ter­ac­tions are some­thing that all tourist des­ti­na­tions learn to deal with, and in places like Thai­land, tourist-han­dling has been el­e­vated to a high art, steadily de­vel­oped over many decades.

Those valu­able “teach­ing mo­ments” that ev­ery good trav­eler learns to ex­pect and cher­ish, the mo­ment when an un­sus­pect­ing stranger in a strange land is gen­tly shown or ex­plained the lo­cal way of do­ing things is not pos­si­ble when tourists travel in huge groups and ar­rive in large num­bers.

In the case of out­bound travel from the Chi­nese main­land, the sheer vol­ume of traf­fic in the sud­den up­swing in Chi­nese provin­cials trav­el­ing abroad is a flood, not a trickle, and as such is harder to han­dle with aplomb. The ho­tels, air­lines, re­sorts, shops, and restau­rants that profit most from tourism need to keep their own greed in check lest they take in more than can be com­fort­ably han­dled in away that is mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial to tourist and host alike. The au­thor is a me­dia re­searcher cov­er­ing Asian pol­i­tics.


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