Chinese tourists - a new Grand Tour
Dec 16th 2010 | from PRINT EDITION
IN THE grounds of King’s College, Cambridge, grows perhaps the most famous willow tree in China. It was immortalised by Xu Zhimo, a 20th-century poet with all the attributes required for lasting celebrity: talent, a rackety love life and a dramatic early death (plane crash at 34). With each passing year, growing crowds of Chinese tourists visit the tree and a nearby marble boulder inscribed with lines from Xu’s poem, “On leaving Cambridge”.
Locals and tourists from elsewhere pass the tree without a second glance. But for educated Chinese, who learned Xu’s poem in school, this tranquil spot, watched over by handsome white cows and an arched stone bridge, is a shrine to lost youth. Many are visibly moved, even as the cameras click and flash. Xu’s verses help explain the great prestige Cambridge University enjoys in China, nudging it a notch or two ahead of Oxford. They also explain why many educated Chinese have heard of punting.
Xu’s willow is just one stop on an emerging grand tour of Europe, the continent that routinely tops polls of dream Chinese destinations. China’s newly mobile middle classes like to visit established spots like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Venice’s Grand Canal. But the visitors have also marked out a grand tour all of their own, shaped by China’s fast-developing consumer culture and by distinctive quirks of culture, history and politics. The result is jaw-dropping fame, back in China, for a list of places that some Europeans would struggle to pinpoint on a map: places like Trier, Metzingen, Verona, Luxembourg, Lucerne and the Swiss Alp known as Mount Titlis.
For decades Asian economic might has gone hand in hand with government programmes to encourage newly affluent citizens to take holidays abroad. In Japan the Ministry of Tourism launched a “Ten Million Programme” to double outbound tourist departures from 5m to 10m between 1986 and 1991. Tourism from South Korea exploded a decade later. Officials in these countries hoped that despatching tourists around the globe would signal their new wealth. It also offered a tangible reward to citizens toiling in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of an economic boom. In China foreign travel is part of a slightly different compact between the state and the new middle classes: unprecedented freedom and fun in exchange for the maintenance of one-party rule at home.
When the bamboo curtain lifted a generation ago, the first contact many Chinese had with the outside world was in the form of imported goods, whose foreign fame was viewed as intrinsic proof of quality. Even today, seen from a Chinese tour bus, the continent of Europe resembles not so much an ancient collection of cities and nations as a glittering emporium stocked with brands. Those brands are not always commercial products: the grand tour takes in the birthplaces of world-famous people, the seats of globally renowned institutions and—as in Cambridge—sites linked to well-known literary works.
A sketch map of the Chinese grand tour must begin in France, the country seen as offering all the essential European virtues: history, romance, luxury and quality. Paris shops such as Louis Vuitton are essential stops: witness their Mandarin-speaking staff. In 2009 Chinese tourists passed Russians as the highest-spending non-European visitors to France, according to a survey of duty-free shops. The south of the country is also popular, thanks in part to widely available translations of Peter Mayle’s book “A Year in Provence” and in part to a slushy Chinese television mini-series, “Dreams Link”, which was filmed amid the lavender fields and walled citadels of the Midi.
China’s freshly minted millionaires and billionaires are particularly obsessed with the wine country of Bordeaux, as red wine has taken over from expensive brandy as the business lubricant of choice. At the very pinnacle of desire is a visit to (or just a glimpse of) Château Lafite Rothschild, home of the claret which has become a favoured show-off brand for Chinese plutocrats. Visits to Château Lafite itself are reserved for invited guests, but China’s would-be tycoons are not put off. Jean-François Zhou of Ansel Travel, a Paris-based firm that brings 15,000 Chinese visitors to Europe each year, recently sent a group down to Bordeaux by bus. After an express tour, one of the coach party snapped up two cases of wine at €600 ($790) a bottle.
From France, Chinese groups typically travel south towards Italy via the casinos in Nice or Monaco (gambling is discouraged in China, but wildly popular). Venice and Rome are stops for every nation’s tourists, but the Chinese grand tour also demands a visit to Verona. One site draws them: a 13th-century mansion linked, a bit spuriously, to “Romeo and Juliet”. That play is doubly admired in China. It was one of the first of Shakespeare’s works to be translated into Mandarin, and its storyline is hailed as matching that of a popular Chinese folk tale, the “Butterfly Lovers”. Chinese tourists have their pictures taken below an ancient balcony said to be Juliet’s, and next to a bronze statue of the tragic heroine. Then it is back on the bus, and northward.
In Germany cities such as Bonn and Trier are as important as more obvious sites like Cologne and Frankfurt (a hub for lots of China flights). Bonn means Beethoven: his birthplace there is a coveted stop for educated Chinese, who are avid fans of classical music. In Trier it is not the city or its Roman ruins that attracts the tourists. They come to see the Karl-Marx-Haus, birthplace of the revolutionary. The Marx museum estimates that 13,000 Chinese tramp around the house each year. Mandarin inscriptions fill the museum’s guest books. In the early morning and evening, large crowds of Chinese have their pictures taken outside the house before heading to their next destination.
A stop in Metzingen involves a tribute to another German, the suitmaker Hugo Boss. A short drive from Frankfurt, Metzingen is home to several factory outlets, where Chinese shoppers vie with Russians and Indians as the biggest spenders. It is a standing joke among Chinese travellers that many products snapped up abroad bear “Made in China” labels. But there is some sense to this seeming madness. Thanks to hefty taxes and customs duties, European brands are routinely 40% more expensive back home. In China they are also quite likely to be fakes.
As France means wine and handbags, Brussels means chocolate. Chen Yongjie, a Suzhou native, works in the Pelicaen chocolate shop of Brussels, next to the Mannekin Pis (a small statue of a boy peeing that is unaccountably popular with tourists of all nationalities). Most Chinese think Belgian chocolate too sweet, Miss Chen reports. This does not stop them buying large quantities for friends and colleagues back home.
Many of the Chinese tourists in the Benelux countries are members of daibiaotuan, official or business delegations with a reputation as boondoggles. As a result of this bureaucratic orientation, the grand tour’s Belgian leg includes stops outside the Berlaymont, as the headquarters of the European Commission is known. Resplendent in the unofficial uniform of the daibiaotuan—dark trousers, dark polo shirt, dark blouson jacket and leather manbag—officials on tour queue up to have their pictures taken in front of the Berlaymont’s nameplate, the nearest thing to a scenic spot in the glass and concrete canyons of the “European Quarter”. The same delegations enjoy less success at NATO’s headquaters which is off limits to tourists. The pluckiest daibiaotuan are not deterred. They can be seen parked on the roadside opposite NATO, taking pictures of its flagpoles across six lanes of traffic.
Taking pictures is a serious business for members of a daibiaotuan. Goofy poses are not encouraged. The Chinese word “qiezi”—pronounced chee-eh-dze and meaning “aubergine”—fulfils the same function as “cheese” in the English-speaking world, generating what is held to be a restrained yet photogenic smile. Childish pleasure can be derived from murmuring “qiezi” when walking past a delegation busy taking pictures: it reliably generates surprised cries of “did that foreigner just say aubergine?”
In Luxembourg the Chinese tourists pause just long enough to photograph the palace of its reigning grand duke. This pocket-sized country, with a population 3,000 times smaller than China’s, is admired for its national wealth per person (the highest in the world by some measures). It also allows Chinese tour groups to knock off another country with minimal effort, allowing for extra boasting back home.
France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg all lie within the Schengen Area, a border-free zone that can be visited on a single visa. This appeals to Chinese tourists, who must submit reams of papers and face a long list of intrusive questions about their finances, employment and personal circumstances to obtain visas for Europe. In 2008 Switzerland joined the Schengen club and Chinese visitor numbers instantly soared.
In Switzerland the essential stop is the canton of Lucerne. With a lake, an historic city and mountains all in a compact area, it amounts to a “mini-Switzerland”, saving time. The Lucerne brand includes Mount Titlis, easily reached by bus and cable car. The mountain is topped by a glacier, offering visitors the chance to visit an ice cave and mess about on sledges even in summer (high season for Chinese tourism). There are Chinese-speaking staff on the peak, and a Chinese restaurant. In perhaps Europe’s oddest claim to Chinese fame, a Chengdu-born gymnast, Li Donghua, claims to have seen a vision of Buddha while visiting Mount Titlis. This he took as a sign that he would triumph at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He duly won a gold medal. His tale is recorded on a mountain-top plaque.
Surprisingly few tourists visit Britain. In August 2010 David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, noted with some bemusement that Germany is poised to enter the leading ten foreign destinations for Chinese tourists, while Britain languishes in 22nd place.
Mr Cameron called for promoting Britain’s heritage—a departure from his Labour predecessors with their focus on modernity and “cool Britannia”. Mr Zhou says his Chinese clients are fascinated that such a titchy island once ran such a large empire and dared start the Opium wars. In reality, as the leader of a Eurosceptic political party, Mr Cameron is unlikely to take the transformative step of joining the Schengen Area. If Britain followed Switzerland into the border-free zone, “half the Chinese tourists on the continent would head to London on the Eurostar,” says Mr Zhou.
Chinese tourists know they are more coveted for their money than loved in Europe. In surveys of Chinese travel agents, the continent is most frequently described as “beautiful” and “historic”—but rarely as friendly. Europeans are described as both “civilised” and “cold”. Even before they leave China, the travellers are nagged to mind their manners and told to act as “ambassadors” for their country. Several times in the past few years the Spiritual Civilisation Steering Committee of the country’s Communist Party has issued chivvying circulars calling on Chinese tourists to avoid queue-jumping, loudness or haggling in shops with fixed prices.
The European travel industry uses the sniffy phrase “sleep cheap, shop expensive” to describe Chinese visitors. Chinese tour operators are notorious for bargaining down travel and hotel costs. A 2008 study by the European Travel Commission, an industry group, estimates that Chinese tourists reserve more than a third of their holiday budgets for shopping. It is “very difficult”, the study laconically concludes, for established European tour operators to compete with rivals whose transport strategy may involve a “Chinese-speaking waiter driving a minibus”. Even Mr Zhou admits that Chinese travellers are “hard work”, not like the “disciplined” Japanese.
Tourism is certainly not about discovering new food. A 2006 survey of Chinese coach travellers found that 46% had eaten “European” food only once, and 10% not at all, during holidays on the continent. Clients at Ansel Travel are typically offered foreign food once in each country: seafood in Paris, ham knuckle in Germany, pasta in Italy and so on. After that, “it’s Chinese all the way.” Many stay in suburban hotels and eat noodles.
This is because excitement and acquisition are prized over pleasant, relaxing experiences. The Chinese are keen on European luxury, says Andy Xie, a Shanghai-based economist—they just aren’t so interested in luxurious hotels and lavish meals. Coming from a newly affluent, increasingly unequal society, they have a strong preference for the accumulation of material goods. After all, a Swiss watch lasts a lifetime, whereas “if you want a good bed, you can have that at home.”
And Western goods may not be valued for the same reasons they are in the West. Château Lafite’s astonishing fame in China is a story about the country’s political economy, not about the enjoyment of wine, says Mr Xie. Too often at banquets in China he has watched first-growth claret being downed in joyless, glass-draining toasts, well into the small hours. “Château Lafite is for serving to high political officials in the hope of high returns. Government officials want to drink it because it is expensive. And people buy it because it is expensive. It becomes self-fulfilling.”
Europeans may sneer at Chinese tourists who pursue Beethoven, Bordeaux and Hugo Boss with the same undiscriminating avidity. But Europeans used to tour their own continent in a similar way. The original Grand Tour was also a display of relative economic power, as the gilded youth of northern, industrialising Europe headed to France, Switzerland and Italy to pick up a veneer of continental “polish” and crateloads of antique souvenirs (many of them fake). Those tourists, too, had less fun than they let on: they grumbled about the food, their rapacious guides and the discomforts of travel.
The face of Chinese tourism is also rapidly changing. The heyday of the daibiaotuan has passed. A decade ago, an official fancying a holiday more or less had to land a spot on one of these delegations, paid for from state or company funds or by joint-venture partners from the West. Today, such delegations are under much more scrutiny, and tourist visas are easier to obtain. Many travellers are now on their second or third visit to Europe: group tours are duly slowing down and stopping to savour local culture. Individual tourism is tipped as the next big thing. Yet individual visitors may create itineraries no more conventional than those dictated by tour groups.
In China, Xu Zhimo is loved not just as a romantic poet: his plain, passionate verse shook up a country grown exhausted and old. Xu is already a secular icon for Chinese students at Cambridge, whose diligence puts local undergraduates to shame. He would make a fine patron for the next waves of Chinese grand tourists—private travellers with the confidence to draw their own map of an old continent. Their list of important sights and experiences does not resemble the genteel image that Europeans have of their own homeland—it includes more duty-free shopping, for a start. But it is a fresh vision. With their economic power and hunger for new experiences, China’s restless middle classes have conjured a new Europe into life.