How to help more Chinese tourists behave better abroad

Carol Zhang says interviews with Chinese tourists show that many are self-conscious about the poor image of Chinese abroad and do their part to behave, so Chinese authorities trying to change the negative perception should bear that in mind.

(SCMP) – There was a time when what happened on tour, stayed on tour. To travel means to escape, and all naughty behaviour overseas was kept strictly confidential. But, nowadays, tourists’ shocking behaviour is widely spread across social media and the news.

To the disapproving public, nationality is a convenient tag and an entire nation easily becomes associated with bad behaviour. It’s not just you; all of you behave badly.

And, among all offending nationalities, Chinese tourists have frequently been named the world’s worst.

While this skewed impression has been caused by just a few tourists, it is becoming a common perception due to the dramatic increase in Chinese tourist numbers.

In 2017, mainland Chinese made more than 130 million outbound trips, a 7 per cent increase from 2016.

The Chinese government is aware of the negative image of Chinese tourists and has become concerned about the wider impact on the image of the country.

It began to roll out measures to try to change this public perception. In 2013, it issued guidelines for “civilised travel” for its citizens. In 2015, the now dissolved China National Tourism Administration published a blacklist of travellers guilty of uncivilised behaviour to name and shame them.

The administration, now merged into the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, encouraged Chinese citizens to take photos or videos of any inappropriate behaviour they spotted and pass it on to the authorities.

In Chinese media reports on the blacklist, the concept of “face” was often used to explain the rationale for the move.

The connections between the need to “save face” and a negative national image were explored in a recent academic article by myself, Professor Philip Pearce and Dr Ganghua Chen, “Not losing our collective face: social identity and Chinese tourists’ reflections on uncivilised behaviour”, which was published in the journal Tourism Management.

Through in-depth interviews with Chinese tourists, we found that all of them denounced uncivilised behaviour, including: talking loudly, littering everywhere, jumping the queue, being shopaholics, being unhygienic, and showing no respect for the local culture.

These tourists recognised such behaviour as inappropriate, with many distancing themselves from such actions by appealing to their own educational level, travel interests, and good conduct in the destination countries.

One woman’s sentiments were typical: “Some people do not have a very good sense of personal hygiene and always let their rubbish fly everywhere … I am an educated, civilised Chinese tourist who tries to protect the image of my country abroad.”

While these individuals distanced themselves from the perception of the uncivilised Chinese, they also sought to rationalise the poor behaviour that gave rise to this perception, to protect their own self-esteem.

Some of them argued that such uncivilised behaviour was, in fact, universal among tourists. Others believed the image of the uncouth Chinese was derived from the exaggerated perception of a few cases.

They put the blame on poorly organised package tours, a negative portrayal of China in Western media and cultural differences.

Our study recognises that face is commonly accepted as one of the most salient social characteristics of being Chinese, and an important socially shared concept used to normalise Chinese behaviour.

As individuals typically prefer a positive image to a negative one, the distressing feeling of losing one’s dignity (face) provides a powerful stimulus to avoid such a loss.

Hence, the fear of “losing collective face” can help prompt Chinese tourists to adopt and promote civilised behaviour.

Different self-initiated measures are implemented to protect China’s face when travelling abroad.

For example, collective supervision is used by younger travellers to ensure that all members within the small group behave appropriately.

Many of the tourists interviewed also said they exercised strict self-control. For example, one man said: “I remember seeing news about eating on the underground. When you are in Beijing, you’re always in a rush and you will eat in a taxi, in a car or on the underground. But I never do that when I travel abroad. You do not want your inappropriate behaviour to influence other people’s normal life.”

Because of the poor image of the Chinese tourist, most of the travellers interviewed felt they often took the blame for problems on the trip.

One man said: “My English is not good. I’m always afraid that if I pronounced some words incorrectly, they might be offensive. If that happened, I would immediately apologise for my behaviour and my English. I should apologise because it was my mistake.”

The study shows individuals were highly aware that any inappropriate behaviour abroad might bolster China’s negative image, so they tended to be extremely careful on travels.

While such caution is useful in rehabilitating China’s image, it may well make the trip less enjoyable.

Nevertheless, attempts to shape Chinese behaviour must take the concept of face into consideration. Undoubtedly, those with little travel experience and who are less educated may continue to contribute to the global image of the uncouth Chinese traveller.

It is apparent, however, that educated Chinese tourists care about these issues and their effort to behave well should be applauded.

It is to be hoped that, with rising levels of education and growing familiarity with the wider world, the Chinese tourists of the future will not be burdened by the undesirable image of being troublesome and disruptive.

Dr Carol Zhang is a senior lecturer in marketing at Portsmouth Business School in the UK.