By Clay Chandler
October 7, 2017

Over the past two weeks editorial duties have taken me to San Francisco, Tokyo, Hong Kong, London and New York. At every stop, I’ve been surrounded by Chinese tourists.

They’re hard to ignore. On the streets of Tokyo’s upscale Omotesando shopping district last week, Mandarin seemed to drown out Japanese. At London’s Heathrow Airport, Chinese travelers far outnumbered Americans in the non-EU immigration queue. Here in New York, to get from my hotel on Chambers Street to Time Inc. headquarters in Battery Park, I’ve had to wade through throngs of Chinese tourists taking selfies at the Ground Zero 9/11 memorial.

Perhaps one reason it suddenly feels like Chinese tourists are everywhere is that this is the “Super Golden Week” holiday in China. Most Chinese workers only get two extended holidays per year, one for Chinese New Year, which falls in January or February, and the other for China’s National Day to celebrate the founding of the People’s Republic. Beijing created this second extended break, which has come to be known as Golden Week, in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis in 1999. The idea was to boost domestic consumption. In most years, Golden Week extends from October 1 through 7. But this year, because China’s traditional Mid-Autumn Festival also falls on October 4, the holiday has been extended by an additional day, enticing more Chinese travelers than ever.

China’s spring and autumn holidays have emerged as humanity’s largest migratory events. China’s National Tourism Administration estimates that this year, the number of Chinese traveling during Golden Week will surge 10% over the previous year to nearly 700 million—half of China’s 1.4 billion population or about one of every ten people on the planet.

Chinese media have documented the travails of domestic travelers this past week with harrowing accounts of lost children, gridlock at popular tourist spots like the Forbidden City and Hangzhou’s scenic West Lake, epic traffic jams along the nation’s expressways, and endless queues for restrooms at roadside gas stations.

Meanwhile, the number of Chinese traveling overseas this week is expected to reach a record 6 million. About 70% will head to destinations in Asia, with Thailand and Japan especially popular this year, according to Ctrip, a leading Chinese online travel service. Chinese travelers are flocking to cities in the United States and Europe as well. Travel industry analysts predict 300,000 Chinese tourists will descend on London this week, an increase of nearly a third over the same period last year.

I’ve remarked previously in this space on the busloads of mainland tourists who now swamp the beachside village where I live in Hong Kong. (Moon Festival in the village this year, I’m told, rivaled the revelries of Woodstock.) I’ve seen a similar surge in Chinese travelers in the tiny town of West Yellowstone, Montana, where my family has a home. West Yellowstone, with about 1,500 hundred permanent residents, now boasts no fewer than seven Chinese restaurants. (The Chinatown, on Madison, offers black-pepper elk and stir-fried buffalo!)

For cities around the world, China’s booming tourist industry offers enormous commercial opportunity. Already China sends more travelers abroad than any other country, and there’s huge room for further growth: only about 4% of Chinese citizens hold passports, compared to about 35% in the U.S. Chinese tourists spent $215 billion abroad last year, 53% more than in 2014, according to a report from the World Travel & Tourism Council. Goldman Sachs estimates that figure will surge to $450 billion by 2025.

Accommodating these new travelers will require adjustments on all sides. Around the world, hotels, airlines, restaurants and luxury retailers are scrambling to cater to Chinese tastes. Beijing, for its part, has stepped up efforts to educate citizens venturing abroad. For example, China’s embassy in Singapore recently issued a pamphlet for mainland tourists with etiquette advice, including this useful tip: “Don’t try to bribe custom officials when you are rejected entry with a valid visa.” The Chinese government has even launched a ‘name-and-shame‘ campaign to blacklist mainland travelers who behave badly.

In the meantime, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post offers a constructive suggestion for easing the strain. In a recent editorial the Post urged China to abandon its policy of mandatory holidays and allow mainland citizens to “take their holidays when they like, not when they are told to.” Not a bad idea.

More news below.

Clay Chandler


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