BEIJING: I am enjoying my break during Golden Week in China.
For many people, taking a vacation means taking time to relax, enjoy and recuperate from the stresses of life. And when many families choose to travel overseas, they seek to explore new places and experience leisurely activities.
They hope to avoid sparking an international crises or walk in on riots with mobs targeting them.
But some Chinese tourists unwittingly found themselves swept up in a wave of violent protests in Vietnam earlier this year.
GETTING MIXED UP IN POLITICAL ACTIVISM
The mayhem ensued in May when a group of Chinese tourists wearing T-shirts with a map highlighting China’s nine-dash line over the South China Sea arrived at Cam Ranh Bay International Airport, and were initially refused entry into the country.
Videos of the incident went viral on social media – which led to angry protests in Vietnam.
To the Vietnamese, it was one thing to make such claims, and another to make these claims while visiting a foreign country that was also involved in the dispute over the South China Sea.
Prior to tensions boiling over, the Chinese had accounted for the highest percentage of inbound tourists to Vietnam, who played a crucial role in boosting Vietnam’s economy.
READ: When a T-shirt riles up an old dispute, Vietnam takes the high road, a commentary
The calamitous event serves as a sharp reminder for all would be globe-trotters planning a trip abroad, whether it's for business or pleasure that they should abide by the motto, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
As guests, tourists have an obligation to obey the laws of the land and to refrain from making a public nuisance of themselves. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most countries probably do not appreciate tourists getting involved in political activism or raising bilateral disputes.
CULTURAL MISUNDERSTANDINGS CAN LEAD TO FRICTION
Another recent incident involving Chinese tourists demonstrates how failure to understand customs on both sides can be a flashpoint that generates a fresh bilateral issue.
In early September, a Chinese family arrived at Generator Hotel in Stockholm, hours before their reservation scheduled the next day for 2pm.
In Chinese hotels, it’s common for guests, who arrive early, to stay at the lobby, so long as they remain quiet and do not disrupt hotel staff in their duties.
But the Swedes have no such hotel customs. So police officers escorted them out and drove them to a public area.
Videos of the family being removed, purportedly in a forceful fashion, by Swedish police went viral and flamed further reactions from both sides.
Tensions were further escalated after Swedish national broadcaster, Sveriges Television, aired a satirical skit that was intended to point out misconceptions the Swedes have about Chinese travellers but was seen by the Chinese as derogatory.
Both the skit and the incident received extensive coverage by Chinese media outlets. The bilateral relations between both sides are frosty, where the Swedes have not acceded to the Chinese embassy’s request for an apology.
Perhaps, we could view the incidents in Vietnam and Sweden as isolated examples.
But Chinese tourists now make up the world’s largest group of travellers overseas. The risk of misunderstanding and a lack of sensitivity to different customs leading to such incidents sparking off tensions between countries may increase as their numbers rise.
Perhaps the best way to go about such incidents is to begin from a place of mutual respect, including respect for the customs and practices on both sides.
After all, the global tourism industry stands to benefit from higher tourism numbers, regardless of which country visitors come from.
Let’s also keep in mind that ultimately tourism’s intent is to promote better understanding between countries, as people are exposed to each other’s very different cultures and practices.
Tom McGregor is a commentator on Asia-Pacific affairs based in Beijing.