The Chinese are the new travellers the world over. Wherever you go you see them in large groups of tourists, scouring shops and places in search of items to purchase or notable sights to visit. As the soft dawn light rose over Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the bulky shadows of ancient temples sharpened and came into focus. So did another sight: thousands of tourists lining the grass, packed together in rows, poised to be in a perfect picture. They were travellers from all over the world, but most were Chinese.
It was the Lunar New Year, a two-week holiday, celebrating the start of the Year of the Rooster, which began recently and ended last Saturday. The event always prompts a tourist boom but this year it reached new heights.
‘I came here because China is so busy over the New Year,’ said Zhang Shuyu, a Beijinger in her 30s. ‘But I found there were just as many Chinese people here the same as back home.’ The holiday is always a time of a huge internal movement that clogs China’s railways. But now, with more disposable income than ever, the Chinese are also venturing –in ever greater numbers – into other countries. They have now become the biggest outbound tourist flow in the world.
In 2016, more than 130 million Chinese visited 174 destinations – 6 million of them during the New Year holiday – for an average of just over nine days. The most common destination was Thailand, followed by South Korea and Japan. Britain was also a popular choice.
Next to the ticket queue at Angkor Wat were rooster balloons and special banners for sale, while on the plane trip over Cambodia, flight attendants wished Chinese passengers a Happy New Year. The staff at Zhanj’s Hotel laid on fireworks for the occasion. Paay, 39, a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, said there were twice as many Chinese over the Lunar New Year, but complained they took buses rather than tuk-tuks.
It is not just the famous Khymer ruins that get the tourists excited. Two groups also visited the Cambodian Killing Fields at Phnom Penh’s abandoned school turned torture camp, Tuolsleng. In Hanoi, Henry from Guangdong in southern China, who was enjoying a bowl of Pho, said he had left home on the first day of New Year to escape the crowds – only to find himself in the thick of them.
In Bangkok, shuffling around the Emerald Buddha Temple and Grand Palace, were Chinese tourists in matching baseball hats, following a guide waving a coloured flag. The guide pointed out an official building due to be visited by Daddy Xi Jing Ping, the Chinese President, on his next state trip to Thailand.
Not everyone welcomed the influx. A temple in Northern Thailand is introducing separate lavatories for Chinese tourists after groups left the existing ones in a bad way. But whatever the reputation of Chinese visitors, countries are more than happy to pocket the revenue.
More than ever, the Lunar New Year seems to going global. Western celebrities and world leaders have the habit of delivering New Year Wishes in video messages. This year’s crop including Theresa May; the UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutiérrez; the IMF Director, Christine Lagarde and the prime ministers of New Zealand and Denmark. There was even an effort in faltering Mandarin from Tom Brady, the US football star. ‘There are Chinese all over the world,’ said Zhang, as the first sunbeam struck the tallest tower of Anwar Wat. ‘Wherever you go, they will be there taking photos.’
The Chinese, it is true, are everywhere. The might of China has become a phenomenon you can no longer ignore. The USA must watch out, for China’s economy is upbeat and will remain unsurpassable so long as the United States keeps squandering a large part of its wealth on waging unnecessary conflicts the world over. This is so costly and beyond comprehension.