[SCMP Column] Chinese travellers in Hobbiton

February 12, 2018

As we queued to climb onto the little tourist bus readying to take us down into Hobbiton, the secret and mystical valley home of Bilbo Baggins and his fellow hobbits, there was already a sense of foreboding. And no, it did not come from the glowering rain clouds hovering close overhead.

Among our damp and intrepid group of sentimentalists setting out to rediscover the quaint childhood memories stirred by JRR Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and given life by New Zealand film- and dream-maker Peter Jackson in the heart of New Zealand’s tranquil countryside close to Rotorua, was a surprisingly rambunctious crowd: six mainland Chinese mums herding seven Chinese kids between the ages of one and six. I do not think Gandalf would have been amused.

Certainly few of the tour group members were in any way amused as the kids in turn bellowed, argued, cried and generally trampled underfoot the carefully manicured pathways that wove their way through Hobbiton up to Bilbo Baggin’s Bag End. To my surprise, none defied the warning on Bilbo’s gate: “No admittance, except on party business.” But our tour guide was in clear distress as her attempts to weave some of Tolkien’s magic were drowned out as the children ran amok. Other Chinese in the group were clearly embarrassed.

Is this the shape of “tourism future”, not just in mythical places like Hobbiton in New Zealand, but worldwide, as unprecedented millions of Mainland China’s newly empowered middle class families prepare to discover the globe? How prescient was JRR Talkien to note, as Bilbo was about to begin his adventure across Middle Earth, to the Lonely Mountain and the home of Smaug the dragon: “It is a dangerous business going out of your front door.”

As in other areas, China’s laws of big numbers are transforming the world of tourism, and not just in New Zealand. The Germany-based China Outbound Research Institute calculates that over 150m Mainland Chinese travellers ventured overseas last year – the largest number from any nation. And this is predicted to grow beyond 200m in the next five years. Admittedly, 68m of the present total were travelling  to Hong Kong and Taiwan, but that still meant 83m travelled more intrepidly – outnumbering the 83m German overseas travellers, and the 68m from the US.

And this is of course just the start of the wave. At present, about 4.3bn holidays are taken every year by Chinese people within China itself – around 3bn of these over the coming Chinese New Year holiday break. As many of these join the aspiring middle classes, it must be a certainty that they will soon be converting those domestic holidays into international ones.

Already, for many countries keen to build their tourism industries, China is the single largest source of international travellers, and the most important source of tourism dollars. This is not yet so for New Zealand – not quite, anyway. Out of its total in 2016 of about 3.5m international tourists, just over half still come from Australia (1.8m). But China is now number two and is coming up fast, with numbers growing at around 12 per cent a year, and totalling 418,000 in 2016. By 2023, New Zealand’s tourist authority predicts Chinese visitors will number 913,000 – about 20 per cent of their total visitors.

Perhaps more important, Chinese visitors are predicted by 2023 to be the country’s most important source of tourism dollars because, perhaps surprisingly, they are among the world’s highest-spending travellers. New Zealand’s tourism officials say Chinese visitors spend an average of NZ$297 a day, compared with NZ$240 among US travellers, NZ$223 among Japanese, and a comparatively miserly NZ$130 among British visitors.

China’s international tourists today spend around US$161bn a year on their travels, and as this number grows, so an increasing number of economies worldwide will remain eager to capture their share – even if significant stresses arise as they try to manage the flows.

At present, a majority of Mainland travellers are moving in large herds as part of large tour groups, but as the Free Individual Traveller (FIT) category of traveller grows and as more Mainland cities are allowed to issue individual travel visas, so the awkward lumpy impact of these travellers can be expected to lessen.

In Hobbiton, it was fascinating to observe the embarrassment of the numerous individual Chinese tourists – most of them young, fluently English-speaking, and sporting the latest of iPhones – as they watched the uncouth impact of their fellow countrymen.

And as I too wrestled to listen to our intrepid tour guide, I was reminded first that it was unfair to racially stereotype: kids aged one to five in numbers can without doubt be uncouth and uncontrollable from any number of countries and cultures – especially to fusty oldies like me.

And second, I was reminded of those large, noisy groups of Japanese tourists that Londoners complained about in the 1960s, and those gaggles of Hong Kong tourists being herded into tourist trinket shops in Thailand or Paris in the 1970s. All came and went.

There are today many more Japanese or Hong Kong families travelling abroad, but they have become invisible as they have broken down into couples or small family groups, and as their increasing intercultural familiarity has enabled them to move more easily, and more widely through the countries they choose to visit. This must surely also happen with Chinese travellers, even as their absolute numbers grow.

And of course, we British have no grounds to feel in any way superior in all this. Again, it was JRR Tolkien who reminded us: “The Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects the generally small reach of their imagination.”

Whatever our dismay over a rowdy group of Chinese families in our short tour through Hobbiton, one has to pinch oneself: how is it that so many Mainland Chinese travellers have heard about Bilbo Baggins and JRR Tolkien’s Hobbit, have been fascinated enough to make this pilgrimage into the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, and were taking home fridge magnet mementoes of the dragon Smaug, or maps of Middle Earth? Here was certainly no rustic English “small reach of their imagination”.

Perhaps this can all be for the good. Remember JRR Tolkien’s sage words: “Not all of those who wonder are lost.” I can quaff a glass of ale to that with Chinese friends in Hobbiton’s Green Dragon pub.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.
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