The Travel Bug Bites...

Wealth and travel go hand in hand. The British started taking the Grand Tour of Europe in the 18th century. America first got its travel bug in the 19th century and things really took off after World War II. Travel opens your eyes to new places, new people and new customs. Most of all, travel forces an understanding that the world is complicated, even more complicated than you imagined. Once you travel, there are no thirty-second sound bite answers to global problems. Everything gets more nuanced and actually because of this, the world gets even more interesting.

Today’s new travelers are coming from the Emerging world. The Pew Research Center recently reported that the global ‘middle class’, those who earn between $10 and $100 a day, totals 1.7 billion people. This is down from previous estimates but still is a big number. China alone has 235 million people who earn more than $50 a day. These people can travel, and many do.

Over 100 million Chinese traveled abroad last year. This is expected to grow to 200 million by 2020. By way of comparison about 60 to 70 million Americans traveled abroad in 2014.

Where do the Chinese go? In the early days it was to Hong Kong and then later to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. The first tourists all traveled in groups. Today this is changing. More and more Chinese tourists are traveling on their own.

The number one destination is Europe which to the Chinese means “culture.” Other popular destinations might surprise you. Japan, which China has had a difficult relationship with is a favorite today. The Chinese like the orderliness and cleanliness of Japan, the cheap prices (import duties in China are as high as 40%) and the quality of goods. One of the most popular items from Japan this past New Year’s holiday was sophisticated, mechanized toilets. Go figure. Good toilets trump politics and history I guess.

The U.S. is coming up quickly in the Chinese travel ranks. New York is the #1 U.S. destination. It doesn’t hurt that the Chinese buy more things when they travel than visitors from any other country. One of the biggest impediments to Chinese tourism however is the visa hassle. The recent China-US agreement allowing for ten-year tourist visas is a big step forward.

Travel is as much about the clash of cultures as anything else. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker accompanied a Chinese tour group to Europe in 2011. His observations were interesting, and often hilarious. Guides instructed participants not to converse with locals. You were just asking for trouble. And all meals were at Chinese restaurants. The guide cautioned, “if you eat Western food too fast, you will get an upset stomach.”

The tour itinerary was offbeat, at least to Western eyes. Trier, Germany was a stop - to see the birthplace of Karl Marx. Another must see was a stand of willow trees at Cambridge University which were referred to lovingly in a famous 20th century Chinese poem.

The Chinese have also taken up cruising today. Ship operators have had to adopt “Chinese characteristics” to their boats. Esoteric movies are out and self-help educational seminars are in for the ever ambitious Chinese. The moneyed masses also want more ‘class distinctions’ with higher paying guests receiving extra perks. Sounds odd coming from ‘socialist’ travelers but capitalism reigns in the Middle Kingdom today and those who have it want it recognized.

The upside to Chinese tourism is money is flowing freely. The International New York Times recently reported that a Chinese company, the Tiens Group, took its entire workforce, 6,000 employees, on a one week vacation to France and Monaco. They booked 84 airplanes, 140 hotels and scores of trains.

The downside to Chinese tourism is that the ‘nouveau’ travelers can still cause a cultural stir. The Chinese are often loud, and sometimes coarse. The Chinese government recently put out a no-fly list of rowdy passengers. Southeast Asian officials have sometimes been outraged at the cultural insensitivities of Chinese tourists (see picture). Other tourists have been caught carving initials into thousand year old statues.

But pretty soon Chinese and other emerging market tourists will be seen as permanent fixtures on the travel scene. They will get assimilated and we will get used to the Mandarin next to the English on signs.