China as Tourist Haven — NOT

Kimberly Kirkendall,  a CPA with a ton of China experience and the CFO of Cleveland’s China Chamber of Commerce — and just an overall China powerhouse  —  posted the following on Linkedin the other day:

I’m in Sanya – often called China’s Hawaii. Talking about the island’s development (they’re aiming for both resort and tech) got me thinking about competition in the region. Hainan is a major destination for Chinese – for holidays, for retirees and companies for retreats. But they don’t have the volume of foreign travelers you see in Thailand or Vietnam. Why? The answer foreigners give is “its still China” – what’s that mean? Thailand, to western ears their language is soft. The resort areas cater more to foreigners than Thai’s, and the culture seems gentle, more calm body language. It feels like a relaxing holiday. The visa requirements are simpler. But Vietnam doesn’t have those same “attractions” – visas are difficult, it’s a “hustle” culture like China, and the language sounds similar to western ears. But the resorts are mostly foreign owned with foreign visitors. So….is it fundamentally because foreign travelers want to feel at home, not too far out of their normal? The Chinese wealthy population has made Hainan its destination, does that keeps foreigners away? Mexico is similar, the biggest resort destinations are ones w/ mostly foreign (Cancun) more than local (Puerta Vallarta) guests. Me? I prefer local, PV is my destination. What do you think?

As soon as I saw it I knew I would need to post on it, so here goes.

I love visiting Vietnam with my family. It’s one of my favorite countries in the world. I love the “hustle” of Ho Chi Minh and the history of Hanoi and the beauty of Halong Bay and the food and the people and its beaches and Hoi An is one of my favorite places in the world and if I were capable of living in a place with less than 2 million people and less than 30 good sushi restaurants (which I am not), Hoi An would probably be first on my list. I also love visiting Thailand with my family.  I love the hustle of Bangkok and the beauty of Chaing Mai and Chaing Rai and the food and the people. And my family and I obviously love Mexico because we go there all the time. To Mexico City, to Guanajuato, to San Miguel de Allende, to Guadlajara, to Puebla, to Merida, to Puerta Vallerta and to Cancun and I can hardly wait to go to Oaxaca next month for ten days to eat and enjoy the amazing food and art.

But China, sorry but no. My wife and youngest daughter once joined me there for a couple of weeks and they both enjoyed Beijing (the Forbidden City is amazing, of course) and Shanghai (who doesn’t love the Bund?) and Qingdao and Dalian, but nobody has mentioned going back.

My eldest daughter and her boyfriend (now husband) did a six month Asia trip after they graduated college. Two words about my daughter: Project Manager. That is her job and that is her. She is the world’s best planner, the world’s best researcher and the world’s most organized person. If you want to know what sheets to buy for your bed you should ask her because she will have thoroughly researched it. If you want to know where to scuba dive in Asia, ask her because she will have thoroughly researched it and done it. When her and her friends go anywhere, she plans the trip and assigns the tasks. Her six month trip included Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand (where I and my wife and my youngest daughter met up with them), Myanmar, and Japan. No China, even though she has never been there. I’ve never asked her why. I just assume her extensive research convinced her that all these other countries would be a better use of her limited time and money.

Why is China not a popular tourism destination for Westerners? The following 14 reasons immediately spring to mind:

  1. It’s really crowded.
  2. People push. I mean really push.
  3. People yell. I estimate I’ve seen more yelling matches in China than the rest of the world put together.
  4. People try to cheat you. Often.
  5. People don’t talk to you just to talk to you; they talk to you mostly to “hustle” you.
  6. You will not be made to feel welcome, not even by hotel and restaurant staff.
  7. It’s polluted. Like really polluted. Like incredibly polluted in some places.
  8. It has major food safety issues.
  9. Bathrooms. Need I say more?
  10. You need a visa before you go.
  11. So much of China’s physical history has been destroyed and what is left is often neither well presented for Westerners nor easily accessed.
  12. China is a difficult place for foreigners who do not speak Mandarin and who do not like group tours.
  13. China executes foreigners for drug offenses.
  14. Slow and blocked internet.

My law firm has offices in Barcelona, Spain (and we just opened an office in Madrid as well) and Beijing. Pretty much every week someone will longingly engage me in a conversation about Spain, wanting to tell me about their trip to Barcelona or to Seville or to Madrid or to San Sebastian or to Mallorca or to Valencia (where one of our lawyers will be going for his vacation next week). I don’t recall a single time anyone has done the same about China. Most of our lawyers have visited our Barcelona office, including those whose work has little to nothing to do with Spain. None of our lawyers outside our China law team have ever even talked of going to Beijing.

Those of us who constantly go to China for business know both how to minimize and deal with the problems listed above, but can you not understand why most people prefer not to have to deal with these sorts of things on their two weeks off from work? Kimberly, would you really tell someone who has never been to China to go there? Do you dispute any of the above? And if even only 5-6 of the above are true — and with all the incredible places to go in the world — does it really make sense for people to spend their limited tourism time and money on China?

Is the tourism trouble/reward ratio better than I’ve painted it above? Is China merely undiscovered and ready to go viral as a tourist destination once people realize how wonderful it really is? Or do you agree with the picture I’ve painted?

Let ‘er rip people.

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