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Chiang Mai Citylife > Articles > 2013 > 2013 Issue 08 > From East to East: The Chinese Tourist Boom in Chiang Mai

From East to East: The Chinese Tourist Boom in Chiang Mai

China’s Global Times prophetically stated as long ago as December 2012 that Chiang Mai would soon see an influx of Chinese tourists, following the huge success of the surprise Chinese blockbuster Lost in Thailand (the second top-grossing film ever in China, after Avatar), shot on location here in Chiang Mai. 

“Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai is expected to attract an increasing number of Chinese tourists in the foreseeable future,” the paper reckoned, and rightly so. Given that the film – which cleverly comprises the amalgam between its calmer 2010 prequel, Lost on Journey, and The (not so calm) Hangover trilogy – was a hit in so populous a country as China, it’s no huge surprise that Chinese tourist numbers have spiked so drastically since the film’s 2012 release. Songvit Ittipattanakul of Chiang Mai-based tour company Standard Tour claims that the film “really promoted Thailand as a fantastic holiday destination. It was mostly shot in Chiang Mai, and was unprecedentedly successful throughout China, where it is one of the top three highest grossing films of all time.” Indeed, the film has grossed more than 200 million USD to date. Perhaps it is testament to the rather clichéd universal perception of Thailand as a place for fun, naughtiness, and not a lot else that the movie’s depiction of Chiang Mai is quite superficial. But, as it turns out, superficiality sells.

The Demographics

I’ll chance that any of you living in Chiang Mai will have noticed a growth in the ubiquity of Chinese tourists throughout the city over the past year. Following the promotional (if not artistic) success of Lost in Thailand, Chiang Mai – whose airport has seen a 28% increase in passengers since May 2012, according to the AIC (Airports Counsel International) – has become a novel destination for Chinese tourists, whilst Thailand as a whole has welcomed a 100 percent increase in the number of Chinese coming to visit the kingdom since this time last year.

They come here looking for a shorter break than one which involves an intercontinental trip across the ocean, but certainly not a cheaper or less exhaustive one. Schedules matching those of the film’s main characters (businessman Xu Lang and his unlikely travel partner Wang Bao) – which include fleeting trips between temples and Muay Thai rings – mean that the average Chinese “high-end” tourist spends around 4,500 baht per day in Chiang Mai, according to figures given by Songvit. This new swell of tourism – dubbed by those in the know as a “state of influx” – comes in anticipation of a more ordered holiday than the bucket-swilling type sought by the farang backpacker tidal wave which has already converged on the city.

Songvit, whose company has been ferrying Chinese tourists all over Chiang Mai and the North for 13 years now, is quite fascinated by the demographics of it all, which he has carefully monitored over time.  He has been able to divide the tourists who constitute this influx into two distinct categories: “The high-end tourists, who are aged between 40 and 50 years old, like to use tour companies. They prefer to follow a set itinerary which has been organised on their behalf in advance,” he says. “On the other hand, I’m beginning to notice an increase in what we in the industry call FITs – that’s Free, Independent Travellers. They’re younger, at around 30, and they don’t use tour operators.”

I admit to having once subscribed to quite an ignorant and generalised view of Chinese tourists: they’re congregators, loud and proud tour bus riders, and ultimately dependent on the company with whom they’ve organised their trip. However, the FITs Songvit talks of seem to shatter this theory. Indeed, the use of the word “traveller” itself symbolises something quite different to the word “tourist.” 

It’s no wonder that Songvit has been noticing such changes; it’s hardly feasible that all of the 1.5 million Chinese tourists that visited Thailand between January and May this year (in the space of just five months!) could go through tour companies. At least 10 percent of these tourists, however, did end up in Chiang Mai and the North, Songvit reckons.

Whilst the stats might not sound sensational, they do equate to an influx of at least 150,000 Chinese tourists in Chiang Mai within the first half of 2013. The figures are impressive enough, at least, to have convinced Jaffee Yee (publishing director and editor-in-chief) of the demand for a Mandarin language magazine in Thailand. Jaffee has suggested that, upon its close, 2013 will have welcomed in excess of 4 million Chinese tourists to the kingdom.

NiHao, Jaffee’s Mandarin magazine which will be released bimonthly from the start of August this year, is to be distributed in both Thailand and China, and will target Songvit’s “high-end” bunch amongst many others who have found their way into the city. As such, Chinese tourists and locals can expect to find the magazine – packed with recommendations and reviews – in airport lounges, embassies, hotels, restaurants and golf clubs. Half of the copies will be circulated in Thailand, specifically in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Pattaya. The other half will be found in China, offering potential tourists a comprehensive guide to Thailand’s luxury hotels and high-end hotspots before their arrival.

This so-called “state of influx” is turning out to be rather profitable, it seems, with both corporate groups and local businesses beginning to exploit the new trend. True Move, for example, has very recently introduced a new SIM card to the market. Not wanting to miss a beat, the telecoms giant is offering 20MB of data and unlimited use of the site weibo.com to Chinese tourists arriving in Thailand. Weibo is effectively an online platform for microblogging (Facebook + Twitter + Foursquare + China = Weibo), and has a function that allows members to instantly access information about nearby hangouts.

iBerry (Nimmanhaemin, Soi 17), before its recent renovation, has welcomed a significant increase in Chinese customers due to the site. This 21st century take on gelato goodness has been a favourite amongst both Thais and farang since its opening, and currently ranks at number 115 out of over 1,000 Chiang Mai restaurants reviewed on TripAdvisor (impressive stuff for an ice cream parlour). However, iBerry is now beginning to prove just as popular with Chinese tourists, thanks to the microblogging sensation which has swept across their nation.

Similarly, Chiang Mai’s Mango Tango has experienced a rapid growth in interest from such tourists. The answer to this new and unexpected buzz lies instead with China’s version of TripAdvisor, mafengwo.com, which features a mass of positive reviews about the Nimmanhaemin (Soi 11) spot. Chinese tourists who are willing to pay those extra few baht for their mango to be dressed up to its photogenic best can be found in this cutesy café, and whilst the desserts and décor scream Instagram, families of all ages and sizes have been drawn in by the good press. There’s even a market for Mango Tango merchandise: tote bags and t-shirts which feature juicy slogans in Thai, English and Mandarin are sold in the shop. Queues of Chinese tourists tend to form about half an hour before the shop opens each morning.

The Problem

Let’s presume that nobody ever got offended or took criticism to heart, that there were no taboo or touchy subjects, and no such thing as bad press. Now, throw caution (and political correctness) to the wind, and imagine a disparaging book was written about your entire nation and their behaviour abroad. I don’t know about you, but I already feel tense (and don’t particularly fancy inheriting the mass of nasty generalisations engendered by my fellow westerners’ Full Moon Party antics and ping pong show proclivities!). For the Chinese in Thailand, such a bible of bad behaviour actually exists. The rather aggressively titled Pigs on the Loose was recently written by a 27-year-old Chinese national named Yunmei Wang (pseudonym: Echo), an MBA student at Assumption University in Bangkok. This cutting guidebook, which classifies Chinese tour group members as pigs and details their behaviour in a variety of public places, has been published as an e-book in both Mandarin and English. 

It doesn’t look good, does it? How must Chinese tourists’ behaviour rile Thais if their own compatriot felt incensed enough to write this book? Pigs on the Loose details the offences and catalogues the crimes (sidewalk spitting, undue noise levels and nasty toilet habits are but three of the “disgusting behaviours” with which Echo takes issue), but is it fair?

“I honestly just want to raise awareness among these people,” Echo told Citylife. “Their behaviour is not acceptable and it is influencing the opinions Thai people form about Chinese nationals in general – not just the tourists. I often feel very embarrassed to be recognised as a Chinese person here because, generally, they’re rude and loud.” As such, whilst the book might be offensive by design, it is not intended to offend, but rather, to teach.

In fact, Pigs on the Loose mirrors the objective of similar guidelines commissioned by the Chinese government itself; the list, which aims to counteract the improper actions of Chinese nationals abroad, can be found on the Chinese Central Government’s website. Whilst the tone of these two sets of tenets is likely to be different, Echo’s attempt to better her compatriots’ unbecoming behaviour is sure to be given the thumbs up by the Chinese government, should they get wind of it.

Echo’s e-book targets tour group members in particular, and it seems that the cliquey nature of the groups in general does not garner a lot of respect from her: “They’re in a tour group, so they’re protected. They all act in the same way and there’s no need to change. They form a group at the airport before they even leave China. On the plane, the group gets to know one another better, and once they land at their destination, the safety net is fully in place.”

Unlike these airplane posses, who have been enticed onto Thai soil thanks to the film, Echo recoils at the thought of Lost in Thailand: “I’m not interested in seeing it – it’s just a money-making machine. I’ve heard it’s funny, but without depth. A bad copy of The Hangover, perhaps?”

Whilst the film’s trifling plot – which is marked with slapstick and stupidity – certainly isn’t what drew Echo into studying in Thailand just two months ago, she does note the kind of domino effect the movie has had on the Thai tourism industry. Those who were tempted into visiting Thailand after watching the film might recommend a Chiang Mai-bound trip to their friends and families. As such, Echo reckons that a serious case of keeping up with the Joneses has probably coaxed Chinese tourists out of their yuan and towards Thailand’s so-called Rose of the North.

There seems, then, to be a less stark difference between Chinese and Thai perceptions of wealth and status than there is between their cultural propensities: the notion of saving face has definitely not been lost in translation. “In China we have the same face-come-image obsession as Thailand,” Echo reveals. “I’ve come to study in Bangkok, for example, which will instantly make my friends think ‘I can do that too’ – they’ll follow the trend. Chinese people view going abroad as a huge accomplishment in their life. You see, for these people, travel is not about exploring or experiencing a foreign country and culture. It’s just about ticking a box, taking photos, shopping and saying ‘I’ve been there… I’ve done that.’”

Echo got me thinking that things might run a little deeper than this superficial status complex. And the issues she points out may extend far beyond Chinese people in Thailand. From whom do we learn good manners, anyway? Is appropriate conduct something that should be institutionalised, or do we pick it up ourselves? Who is to blame if and when bad behaviour is more commonplace than good behaviour?

In the accomplished words of novelist Don DeLillo, “To be a tourist is to escape accountability. Errors and failings don’t cling to you the way they do back home.” Why is it, then, that Chinese tourists are not permitted this same level of respite? After all, the influx itself is not a problem – far from it, in fact, for those big and small businesses which are simultaneously capitalising on its arrival.

It’s a tricky one, and whilst Echo’s bold move might astonish some and upset others, Pigs on the Loose is certainly a brave and arguably innocuous account of what one woman perceives as a genuine and widespread problem. She has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from both Chinese and Thai alike, and many have applauded her for providing something quite constructive for those compatriots of hers who aren’t tour group members, but are living and working in Thailand whilst struggling to shrug off a stereotype that has thus far followed them from East to East.

Echo welcomes any of Citylife’s readers’ questions or comments: email her at [email protected]