The tourism in Hangzhou guides the viewer towards depictions of Africa, with bylines like “we are all one family.” According to a traveler I meet, this is called “strategic philanthropy.” For others, its “contemporary colonization.”
Hanzhou is a city of historical sites made famous by Chinese poets. In other words, it is a city of Chinese domestic tourists. This makes for incredibly disappointing and expensive food, and worse service. Even at Mcdonalds, they forget my order. Every. Single. Time.
The Chinese domestic tourist industry has exploded since the late 90s, when peasants from the countryside no longer needed permission from the state (or their employer) to get on a bus, train or airplane. Since then, the privatization of the travel industry has also created more incentive for motels and other accommodations to provide hospitality to the tourist, rather than just tolerate the tourist. Before they privatized the industry, the few state-owned motels would turn people away simply because they did not want to clean the rooms.
By tourist, of course, I don’t mean the typical family of white folks, or even western backpackers. Europeans and Americans make up less than one percent of China’s tourism, while Asian tourists make up less than ten percent. The overwhelming majority are Chinese domestic tourists, so everything—hotels, restaurants, sites, etc., are catered toward Mandarin-speaking Chinese.
For many Chinese, The 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, as Western media tends to call it, was not a failure of protest, but a success. Chinese who demanded change, for the most part, got what they wanted: the ability to consume freely, produce freely, go to the schools they wanted, and most importantly, travel freely. The state allowed all those things; the only thing they refused to allow was overt dissent (you can protest against specific policies, but not against the state itself). In the Chinese-style social contract, the state upheld their responsibility as being a beneficial tyrant rather than an abusive, exploitative tyrant. Freedom of political dissent, for them, was never a part of the social contract anyway. Freedom to travel at one’s leisure was one of the expressed aims of the protesters. It is a freedom that over 1.2 billion—billion!—Chinese exercise every year. With so many tourists participating in the market, hotels cater to the competition. Even youth hostels are filled almost completely with domestic tourists.
In China, western binaries of travel like the “do it yourself” backpacker (who actually lets Lonely Planet do all the work for them), and the “get carted around” tourist, are one and the same. There are so few westerners traveling in these areas that we tend to blend into one another. I constantly make friends with upper class and middle class tourists, since the travel routes are the same, and we’re all equally lost in the system made for Chinese.
Gone is the mythical binary between traveler and tourist. Chinese locals don’t distinguish between us, since none of us know enough of the regional language anyway, and both groups have enough leisure money to be considered middle-class. There is only one thing that separates tourists here—those who travel alone, and those in gigantic tourist groups, who follow a tourist company’s flag.
We run into hoards of them in Hangzhou. With every step we merge with or out of a tourist group. They seek to understand the lyrics of the poet Bai Juyi, who immortalized the West Lake in his poems.
I most love the east of the lake, I cannot come often enough
Within the shade of green poplars on White Sand Embankment.
–from A Visit to Qiantang Lake
There are ten designated scenic sites, each one referring to poems. What looks to me like “just some tree” carries legends of morphing spirits and imperial suicides. What seems like “just a bridge” withholds stories of the snake goddesses seducing young impressionable men. Even the food, like the braised belly pork, is made famous by poets.
In a country where group tours are the norm , I begin to rethink their validity as a “real” travel experience. Chinese do not seem to have the “rite of passage” concept of travel that many Europeans have, nor the “Grand Tour” concept of the British, nor the “intellectual in exile” concept of Americans. Travel is about understanding what it is to be Chinese, about matching literature and pop-culture to a place. It is done with friends and family; it is not a solitary but a collective enterprise.
All my critiques against group tourism suddenly seem trite. Secured by tour guides, these group tourists at least are learning the history, the legends and poetry behind every place they go, while I can only see trees and bridges. I wonder how much time I’ve wasted securing train tickets, plane tickets, and hotel rooms, while these group tourists simply shuffle in and out of their pre-arranged spaces. Why not travel with your family and friends, and all the while, meet new people belonging to your group, who are just as new to the space?
I have almost always traveled alone, yet for some reason, group travel now seems like the obvious way to go. Maybe it’s because I’m past the 18-25 year old bracket, and just want some damn convenience. As if learning the language, breathing in the pollution, marching through heat and humidity, and wrapping my head around cultural oddities wasn’t enough—I also must do it alone, on a meager budget, with six people snoring in my dorm room every night?
After six years of backpacker-style traveling, it all seems so absurdly unnecessary.
There are Chinese backpackers, but like backpackers most anywhere, they are usually young, elite, urban people, not poor people from the countryside. And, as with many backpackers anywhere, they are usually interested in going to remote places, seeking mystical and spiritual places to contrast modern cities and urban alienation. And like all facets of Chinese domestic tourism, they too are growing.