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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

China's Tourists Reshaping World

BEIJING -- The curious incident of the pig's-head meal vouchers and the anthem-singing sit-in offers a cautionary tale about what can happen when the world's most populous nation suddenly sends forth the globe's biggest tour group.

At a casino hotel in Malaysia's Genting Highlands last summer, 300-plus members of a Chinese tour group were issued meal coupons bearing somewhat crude illustrations indicating that they ate pork, unlike most people in that predominantly Muslim country.

The tourists, however, reportedly interpreted the drawings as a message that Chinese were pigs, leading to a lobby sit-in and an impassioned rendition of China's national anthem. The standoff was broken up only with the arrival of police canine units.

Cultural misunderstandings are just some of the possible pitfalls as millions of increasingly affluent Chinese tourists head overseas, shopping lists in hand, to see the world. Often loud, nouveaux riches and increasingly on your doorstep, the newly minted tourists show anew how the rising aspirations of China's 1.3 billion people are fundamentally reshaping the world.

About 32 million Chinese ventured overseas last year, a sixfold increase over 1997 and a 50-fold increase since 1985, with 100 million projected annually by 2020.

Tourists are sometimes dubbed a nation's cultural ambassadors. In China's case, however, cackling loudly, tossing chicken bones in restaurants and walking around hotel lobbies in pajamas can leave some rather undiplomatic impressions. "Vientiane braces for Chinese hordes ... of noisy, spitting tourists," blared a recent headline in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, referring to the capital city of Laos.

Wary of the bad press, the Chinese government, tour agencies and concerned individuals have tried to school outgoing tourists. "Spitting, slurping food and jumping queues merely disgust people at home," the state-run New China News Agency warned last month. "But it is intolerable in other countries."

A recent study by Arlt's Outbound Tourism Research Project on Chinese overseas shopping patterns notes that although some Chinese inadvertently break social rules, others do so consciously. "You'll see people flouting 'no smoking' signs at luxury outlets knowing that few will complain when they're spending $10,000," Arlt said. "There's also a feeling that 'foreigners have been trampling on us for 200 years, and now it's our turn.'"

China's travelers also tend to focus on superlatives, experts say, with Red Square and London's Trafalgar dismissed as "not nearly as big as Tiananmen." They tend as well to be unimpressed with several-hundred-year-old Japanese and European buildings, seen as crumbling upstarts with little charm through the prism of China's 5,000-year history.

Sociologists say the cultural disconnect can go beyond behavioral habits to encompass a world view. China's highly developed sense of "in group" and "out group," they say, means Chinese often do far more than Western counterparts for friends, and far less for strangers.

"Chinese are rude to people they don't know," said Wolfgang Georg Arlt, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Germany. "Unfortunately, when it comes to tourism, you don't know most of the people you meet."