In the past decade, Chinese tourists have made international headlines for all the wrong reasons. From setting fire to curtains inside aeroplane cabins to hurdling noodles over flight attendants, news publications have repeatedly asked ‘Why are Chinese tourists so badly behaved?’. Following a quick online search, it is not uncommon to come across articles that list the top 10 most embarrassing Chinese tourists moments or personal recounts of bad Chinese tourist experiences. As one restaurant owner stated in an Aljazeera news report: “They don’t say hello, they don’t speak French, they don’t speak English…One woman came in here and spat on the floor.”
Image: Maxxelli Consulting (2014). Understanding China’s Outbound Tourism. Retrieved June 4th, 2017 from here.
With one in ten travellers worldwide coming from China, however, these reports ignore the significant impact that Chinese tourists have on businesses worldwide. As the World Tourism Organisation reported in 2013, with an increase of 70 million tourists travelling beyond China since 2000, Chinese tourists spent US$102 billion overseas in 2012 alone, making China the world’s biggest spender on foreign travel. Despite these figures, opinion articles that make general assumptions about Chinese tourists as rude, uncultured and ill-mannered reveal that the majority of Chinese tourists are misrepresented and unknown to foreign publics. As academics in hospitality and tourism management Fu, Cai and Lehto (2017) note, there is even a lack of understanding in the literature on what drives the Chinese to travel, and how culture can influence the behaviour of tourists abroad.
The main problem is that while Chinese tourist motivations have been frequently explored, most research has relied on Western paradigms and frameworks that use existing dimensions and terms, such as prestige, romance, and autonomy (Fu et al., 2017), to frame what Chinese tourists desired most or expected to gain from their travel experience. Without completely contrasting Chinese tourist behaviour with their Western equivalents, Fu et al. (2012) state that it needs to be recognised that many Chinese travellers display characteristics driven by their cultural roots. As theorists such as Max Webber (1951) and Geert Hofstede (1980) argued decades before, this means that Chinese people are strongly influenced by the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC).
Whether this refers to valuing concepts such as ren 仁, which can be understood as “tolerance, forgiveness, deference, filial obedience (to parents), faithfulness (to master), wisdom…” (Lu, 1983, p. 29); the moral force of li 礼, which governs correct and appropriate behaviours in relationships; or xin 信 as representative of sincerity and trustworthiness, the individual in Chinese culture is never an individual in the Western sense. Each self in Confucianism is part of a human relationship where individuals are obligated to act and treat others according to Confucian virtues. Fulfilling these obligations adds to the growth and structure of the self, which ultimately builds a stable social and political structure of the state (Kwek & Lee, 2010).
As “one of the most prominent and enduring cultural influences within the East Asian region” (Ng & Lee, 2014, p. 150), Confucianism may provide a cultural backdrop to explain motivational drivers for tourists. In recent years, two main studies were conducted to test whether Confucianism did play a role in influencing the behaviour and motivation of Chinese tourists. The first was a qualitative report where Kwek and Lee (2010) from Griffith University interviewed and observed Mainland Chinese nationals visiting Australia on a corporate/leisure trip. The total participants in the study consisted of 10 guided tours of 64 people, of whom 55 were male and nine were females. For Fu, Cai and Lehto’s (2017) quantitative report, a scale was developed that applied Confucian life domains of self, family, social life, society, and nature to a survey questionnaire that was tested on 507 Chinese residents in Hangzhou who had taken leisure trips prior to the sampling period.
Both studies had similar results: the primary motivation for tourists was to achieve harmony, whether with nature or in existing relationships. While harmony is identified in other motivational frameworks (Pearce & Lee, 2005), maintaining harmony for these tourists has to be understood within a Chinese context. For example, ancient Chinese philosophies like Daoism and Confucianism have long held the view that humans and nature are a unified entity, which diverges from the subject-object relationship between culture and nature in the West (Tang, 2015). As a result, seeking harmony with nature is not a surprising theme in China’s tourism tradition and goes beyond aesthetic appreciation to a means of pursuing wisdom by enjoying simplicity. On harmony within relationships, the majority of Kwek and Lee’s participants noted the importance of avoiding conflict and seeking harmony within group settings (p. 137). As one Chinese tourist from Beijing commented:
“The Chinese people have, for centuries, cultivated the habit to strive for harmony in every situation and as long as everyone is happy, we are also happy to oblige” (Male, early-50s, businessman).
Harmony here refers to peace, acting in an appropriate manner, and having good relationships with others. Given the hierarchical and collectivist aspect of Chinese social settings, harmonious relationships function as a way of promoting personal connections and social norms, such as loyalty and obligation (Chen & Chen, 2004).
Other themes that emerged when observing how Chinese tourists behaved included respect for authority and conformity. In every corporate/leisure tour group for instance, a leader who held the highest social status would take charge in making decisions for the group. To show respect, Kwek and Lee write that members would always look towards the leader for directions and decisions as a way of protecting his or her social face. Whether this involved choosing a restaurant or what activities to do next, members would suppress their personal preferences to conform to the interests of the leader so as not to appear ‘deviant’ (p. 134). Although there are some setbacks to Chinese vertical relationships, including overconcentrating power at the top and leaving little or no room for group initiatives, the underlying idea of respecting authority is to maintain harmony and avoid conflict at all costs.
Finally, in terms of motivations or what Chinese tourists sought to get out of their trip, family togetherness was rated as the second-highest motivation factor (Fu et al., 2017). In that sense, whether touring as a group or in a family setting, maintaining integrity in relationships and developing bonds with others is what influenced why Chinese tourists travelled and how they were expected to behave abroad.
While limited to only two studies, these findings show more to the behaviour and action of Chinese tourists than what reaches the headlines, and provide valuable information for industry practitioners interested in developing desirable vacation experiences to Chinese tourists, particularly when translated into marketing and promotional guidelines. Promoting the potential of a destination should emphasise personal and relationship goals of Chinese tourists and how places can fulfil motivational needs. In the regional context as well, Confucianism as a cultural tradition goes beyond mainland China and includes locations such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore. Developing a deeper understanding of what drives Confucian-heritage societies could become a lucrative market base as most of these growing middle-class markets have a propensity to spend on travel (Fu et al., 2017).
For academia, these studies also show the importance of trying to understand phenomena from a non-Western perspective, especially when Western theories and frameworks are not suitable to discuss non-Western settings. As one of the major philosophies of Chinese culture that influences the social and political dynamics of Chinese society as well as the personal and social dynamics of everyday life, understanding Chinese tourist behaviour and motivations from a Confucian background provides a greater understanding of the relationship between culture and tourism.