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Opinion

Finding common ground with Chinese tourists

In the past decade Hong Kong and Macau have benefited substantially from mainland Chinese policies of letting an increasing number of tourists into the two cities.

Many believed that mainland tourists were part of the contributors that helped lift Hong Kong’s economy out of the abyss following the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) crisis. Mainland travellers, especially high rollers, are the main source of income for casinos in Macau, which has surpassed Las Vagas to become the world’s biggest gambling center.

In recent months, however, the two cities were dealing with the side effects of playing host to one of the richest groups of tourists in the world. The clashes between tour guides and visitors in Hong Kong and Macau offer good examples for Taiwanese tour agencies and tourism-related businesses as they are gearing up for the increasing number of individual mainland tourists.

Two Chinese tourists went to court with a Hong Kong tour guide over a brawl that broke out after the Chinese said they were forced to buy items from a jewelry shop during their trip.

It is a common practice among travel agencies to offer extremely cheap, sometimes even free, packages to tourists with the condition that they will visit places such as jewelry, Chinese artifact or herb shops. The agencies then earn commissions from the shops according to the purchases made.

Tour guides generally do not actually “force” people to purchase items in these places but tourists can expect to spend a lot of time, sometimes hours on end, at these “shopping stops.“ Arguments often stem from the differences between visitors who are bored by these non-sightseeing trips or feel cheated, and the tour guides who insist to the clients that these stops are part of the deal.

In theory the solution to this problem is straightforward. After all, it is not difficult for people to understand that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Many no doubt half expect these “mandatory” shop visits when they sign up for the cheap trips. In fact, such practices are not reserved only for Hong Kong and can be seen in many Chinese tour packages. To even make it more clear, regulations can be made to demand that tour agencies clearly notify their clients on the number and length of shopping stops in their trips

What’s more difficult to solve is the profound difference in lifestyle and even prejudice held by the two types of people toward each other ― the Hong Kong tour guide and mainland tourists ― that supposedly share the same culture. It is an unofficial fact that people in long-developed cities such as Hong Kong and Macau have a sense of superiority over the “new rich” from the mainland. Cantonese movies before the turn of the century typically showed people from the mainland as country bumpkins.

As mainland China becomes more assertive in its status as a growing power, so its people are becoming more confident in theirs. They no longer swallow the snobbishness from Hong Kong’s people, either real or imagined. The brawl that ended up in a Hong Kong court reportedly began with tour guide’s insult that people from a certain part of Chinese are poor.

Some even more “assertive” Chinese tourists might see themselves as a vital source of income to Hong Kong and would ensure people recognize them as such. In some individual cases, tourists have become increasingly demanding, even hostile, toward their tour guides. Some 100 angry Macau tour guides surrounded a busload of tourists on Valentine’s Day after three of those on board were accused of beating up a guide over a dispute that the tour group that arrived earlier than scheduled.

The true solution is the seemingly obvious but hard to achieve principle of mutual respect. Even as tourist attractions and department stores in Tokyo are asking their employees to learn Chinese to welcome mainland tourists, travel agencies in the greater China area should begin to recognize Chinese tourists, not as cash-cows to be slaughtered, but as people by providing quality tourism packages. On the other hand, the Chinese government should also work harder in the education to its people, who are famous among tour guides worldwide for being hard to deal with.

Taiwan shares the same status as a developed economy like Hong Kong while it faces the additional challenge of dealing with people from a longtime political rival. The island should begin training tourism professionals on how to deal with Chinese tourists as the nation welcomes more tourists from the mainland.

(The China Post, Feb. 26)
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