How Chinese Tourists Usurped the Ugly Americans

This past week a 15-year-old teenage boy who etched "Ding Jinhao was here" into the side of Egypt's Luxor Temple has received worldwide attention, but the underlying question has been whether Ding is an anomaly or the norm?

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Ugly American Tourists rejoice, you've been replaced by the Ugly Chinese Tourist. This past week a 15-year-old teenage boy who etched "Ding Jinhao was here" into the side of Egypt's Luxor Temple has received worldwide attention, but the underlying question has been whether Ding is an anomaly or the norm? Should guards at Museo Del Prado be vigilant of its Chinese visitors? Should guides at The Met be on alert? Well, those guards and guides should always be on alert, but the answer is way more complicated, just like when it applied to Americans, than just the idea of a nation of terrible tourists.

The Economics of the Chinese Tourist vs. The Ugly American

For the longest time Americans have held the mantle and stereotype of being the most obnoxious tourists on the face of the Earth. Some of us were too loud, others were too tacky, many were too fat, others were too demanding, and an unfortunate few were all of the above — basically people around the world found the American tourists they met offensive. But lately that caricature has been fading. "The ugly American — the stereotypically brutish, ethnocentric, bumbling traveler abroad — is dead. He's gone the way of global U.S. hegemony, the strong dollar and mid-20th century American naivete," wrote Gregory Rodriguez for the Los Angeles Times in 2011. Rodriguez points to a number of different factors as to why the "ugly American" tourist has faded: Americans are more diverse, a kind of timidity that crept in after 9/11. But it's his point about the weak dollar which resonates today. "Americans were more rude when the dollar was strong," a longtime waiter at Madrid's Cerveceria Alemana bar told Rodriguez. And if you look at the weakening dollar and the sagging American economy over the past five years, and apply the waiter and Rodriguez's logic, it wouldn't be wrong to conclude that Americans are traveling less and Americans that are traveling abroad are being more mellow.

China is the flip side to that. The past few years have been great for China's economy, meaning more money to spend on travel. "In 2012, Chinese overtook Americans and Germans as the world's top international tourism spenders, with 83 million people spending a record $102 billion on international tourism," CNN reported last month. More Chinese tourists traveling make Chinese tourists more visible, and that gives people around the world the templates to start a stereotype. And just like the Americans who were rude and demanding when the dollar was strong, so too are the Chinese. "Rich Chinese tourists are pushing the boundaries and unfortunately some of these places are bending to their will ... Particularly the newly rich, who think, 'If I'm paying money then I'm God,'" as Mei Zhang, the owner of a Chinese travel told CNN.

The Offenses:

As Zhang explained to CNN, one of the key parts of being an ugly tourist is making places "bend" to your will. It isn't simply just being rich, it's making the place you're visiting accommodate your tastes or disrespecting local customs. There's no proof that Chinese tourists behave any differently or worse than tourists from other countries, but across the world, there are signs they are earning that reputation.

  • At the Louvre in Paris, there's a sign for that warns people not to defecate and urinate on the premises. It's only in Chinese, reports Quartz's Gwynn Guilford.
  • Elsewhere in Paris, Chinese tourists have drawn the ire of Zadig &Voltaire, a fashion retailer who said in October their new 2014 hotel will definitely not be open to Chinese tourists. 
  • In Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai, Thailand, monks and temples officials are having a hard time explaining to Chinese tourists that wearing shorts is not allowed. "Even though some of these tourists understand some English, it's hard to communicate. When asked why he and his group came to Chiang Mai during the Chinese New Year, a Chinese male in his thirties stabbed a thumb to his chest and said importantly: 'I am rich.'" reported Vint Chavala for Thailand's The Nation in February.
  • On a Thai message board, Chinese tourists are singled out for bad driving, being loud, cutting in line, and even have their children defecate in public pools. 
  • At Ewha Women's University in South Korea, Chinese tourists have turned the private school into a photo opportunity and regularly disregard "trespassing" signs. "When you pronounce the word Ewha in Chinese, it becomes leewha, which sounds similar to leepa, and leepa means ‘Something brings you a benefit’ in Chinese. In addition, the Chinese character Ewha means purity as well.'," reported the blog Koreabang last month. 
  • In Singapore, as The New York Times reported in 2005, Chinese tourists became known for talking too loud. "Oh, my God ... They talk so loud I have to yell until my throat hurts," a sales clerk told The Times. 
  • Hong Kong Airlines, as CNN reported in April, had to teach their cabin crew kung fu in order to deal with drunken passengers flying to and from mainland China.
  • In February, a Chinese mother saw it fit to let her young boy urinate in a bottle in the middle of a Hong Kong restaurant. Many did not see her fit. 
  • And, yes, in Egypt there's the boy who carved his name into the pyramid. 

By no means is that every incident reported, but those are just some of the biggest ones leaving their dents in newspapers and social media.

Visiting at Home

While Chinese abroad have had their fair share of transgressions, it's also worth nothing that tourist attractions on the mainland have come under fire too. For example, the ways animals are treated in China's zoos is downright sad. Zoos can (arguably-speaking) be depressing places on their own (though not as depressing as Sea World). But in China, there have been a rash of attacks on animals there, like a psychopath biting and killing an ostrich in January or the visitors in the same month who kept trying to hit the Hangzhou Zoo's lions with snowballs or the visitors at the Shenzen zoo who all but killed crocodiles by throwing stuff into their exhibits, because they thought the animals were fake. Clearly, that behavior would not fly in a U.S. zoo. But that's a little different than visiting Buddhist temple in tiny shorts or dropping trou and human feces in the Tuileries. And it's a tad different than a Chinese man busting the glass to a Forbidden City antique.

And it's a little different than the graffiti-style vandalizing of an Egyptian pyramid. But when it comes to that unfortunate (and sort of hilarious) "Ding Jinhao was here" vandalization, that act may actually come from the bubbling up of Chinese street art, which began in 2005. Writer Carolyn Look has a good story on the emergence of street art in Beijing and Shanghai and how the counter culture fights back against the idea of China being an uncreative economic powerhouse. "Today, graffiti is a trend that is on the brink of exploding in China," Look writes. Look explains that the vandalization of Beijing's buildings, some ancient, is a positive thing, "In many ways, graffiti in Beijing has been less a criticism towards the government than towards the passivity of the public. It has forced them to literally open their eyes."

The Chinese Response

Ding's parents have apologized profusely for wrecking the relic. And that's encouraging. It'd be quite a different thing if Ding's parents said that their child did nothing wrong and did not accept any responsibility. But the broader issue is the image of China. Ding's transgressions came just days after one of China vice premiers urged the country's people to be polite. Vice Premier Wang Yang said in a statement: 

Improving the civilized quality of the citizens and building a good image of Chinese tourists are the obligations of governments at all levels and relevant agencies and companies ... Guide tourists to conscientiously abide by public order and social ethics, respect local religious beliefs and customs, mind their speech and behavior … and protect the environment.

And, as Guilford explains, China seems bent on cleaning up its tourism image: "China announced just last month that it is issuing a Tourism Law to take effect in October. That law will give travel agencies the authority to penalize tourists who 'violate social ethics,' though it’s also geared toward cleaning up the domestic tourism industry."

Still, some of mainland response of Ding's vandalization comes from a the grade-school, "well they do it too" excuse. In the wake of finding out about the Luxor vandalization came from Chinese hands, Author Abe Sauer explained that "numerous Chinese reporters pointing out that Great Wall is littered" with Western graffiti.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.