Chinese tourists: Asia's new 'ugly Americans'

It's 9:30 a.m., so it must be the Grand Palace.

Yang Lingchang squeezes off a final photo in the courtyard, then heads for the exit with the rest of his group.

It's Day One of a six-day tour of Thailand, and Mr. Yang of Beijing isn't quite sure what's next. "I just follow the guide," he shrugs.

Off to the side, Wang Xiongcai has slipped off his shoes and sits down on a wall, waiting for his group to finish inside. Back home in Hangzhou, it's close to freezing, so he's forked out $425 "to go somewhere warm." It's his first-ever foreign vacation, but he seems unfazed. "It's the same when you travel to another part of China and the customs are different."

Armed with the spoils of an economic boom, millions of Chinese are traveling abroad for the first time, ready to soak up the exotic along with the familiar. And they're able to visit more countries as Beijing relaxes its rules on foreign travel. In September, 25 European countries were added to its list of approved destinations, though the US is still off-limits.

Around 30 million Chinese took foreign vacations last year, and Thailand is among those countries rolling out the red carpet. Thai officials predict that the number of visitors from China will top 1 million next year, up from only 21,000 in 1987, putting China within shouting distance of Japan, the big spenders of Asian tourism. In 2004, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) expected 1.25 million Japanese visitors.

'Ugly Americans' of Asia?

However, catering to China's newly rich has its downside, though most Thais are too polite to say so publicly. Just as brash Americans attract glances from Parisian sophisticates, Chinese tourists have acquired a reputation in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia as loud, pushy bumpkins with table manners that leave much to be desired.

Even tour operators concede that their Chinese customers can be rude and bossy when they hit the road.

"They're not very cultured, and they've just started making money, so when they leave their country I'm afraid they act like big shots," says Ren Jingli, a Beijing travel agent who escorts groups to Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia.

But as they bustle through the temples and markets of Southeast Asia, Chinese tourists are following a well-worn path on the tourist trail. "It's a bit like the Japanese in the early days - they want cheap, they always bargain you down, looking for the lowest level," says Andrew Wood, general manager of a Bangkok hotel that caters to Asian tours.

"Yes, they're louder than other tourists. Stingy? Not at all. They just spend their money differently," says John Koldowski, research director at the Pacific Asia Travel Association in Bangkok.

Chinese typically spend six days in Thailand, stay in three-star hotels and spend $100 a day on eating, shopping, and cultural shows. Dozens of tour companies have sprung up to service the trade, training Chinese-speaking guides and building relationships with Chinese counterparts. Thailand's ethnic Chinese, who as in much of Southeast Asia dominate the economy, have latched onto the trade.

"We have an ethnic relationship with Thais and Chinese. There are many Chinese in Thai business, and we use this cultural relationship.... We think in the near-future China will be the number one [tourists] in this region. People have the freedom to travel and it's a huge population," says Santichai Euachongprasit, deputy governor for marketing at TAT.

With more tourism, more scams

But there are bumps along the road.

Some Chinese tourists arrive on cut-price package deals known in the industry as "zero- dollar" tours because operators make their money by steering tourists to businesses that kickback commissions. So, instead of lingering at Buddhist temples and beaches, tourists are hustled to jewelry shops and strong-armed into buying overpriced trinkets.

In Malaysia, arrivals from China have fallen sharply this year, partly as a result of bad publicity. In one incident, Chinese visitors staged a noisy protest when their check-in vouchers at a resort were decorated with a drawing of a pig, apparently to distinguish them from Malay Muslims who don't eat pork. Stories of shopping scams and harassment of Chinese women accused of overstaying their visas have also sullied the trade.

Tu Changgu, a guide who runs trips to Thailand from his hometown of Chongqing, says he hears complaints from Chinese who sign up for "zero- dollar" tours. "Tour groups who go with local guides in Thailand are not always satisfied, they get pushed to buy things," he says.

Thai tourism officials say they are trying to stamp out such practices and have blacklisted disreputable tour companies.

Crocodile bags, sharkskin shoes

Inside the polished marble doorway at the Eastern Free Shop, dozens of uniformed shop assistants stand ready to pounce on visiting tour groups. All staff members need to speak some Chinese, as 4 out of every 10 customers are from China, explains Wang Zhaowen, the Thai-born store manager who is fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese.

As the tour buses keep rolling in, Mr. Wang enthuses over the shopping habits of the Chinese. If they buy, they often buy in bulk, he says. Must-have items? Crocodile bags and sharkskin shoes. Yes, they always come in groups, but so do the Taiwanese and the Germans.

Are they rude? Wang smiles. Or loud? He juts out his chin. "If they're loud, we have to be loud, as well. They're our customers and we want them to be happy," he says.

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