One of the top aspirations for China’s rising middle class is a vacation. For a county with over 1.4 billion people, that means a lot of tourists. As more and more Chinese travel aboard, more and more “rude Chinese tourist” stories are coming back. For example, in May, a 15-year-old teenage boy who defaced the wall of Egyp’s Luxor Temple has received worldwide attention.
Part of the reason is cultural difference – what the Chinese consider normal may be regarded as rude in a foreign country. Unfortunately, however, within China’s own borders, similar problems are no less, at least not in those parts where the native people have a very distinct ethnic culture, such as Tibet.
Summer is usually Tibet’s peak traveling season. People from across China pour into the plateau by air, by train, by car and even by bike. China’s National Highway 318 runs from Shanghai to Zhangmu on the China-Nepal border, connecting one of the country’s most developed cities on the east coast and Tibet. It was rated by the National Geographic as one of China’s best scenery highways. To pedal to Tibet along 318 used to be the ultimate dream of a hardcore outdoor fan. But this year, there was a traffic jam of cyclists.
Does every one of them have the body and knowledge to pedal a few hundred miles of different road and weather conditions? Absolutely no. But more and more people rush to 318 anyway because it makes an already cool trip cooler.
Unlike Chinese outbound tourists who are known for being more likely to show up in high-end shopping malls than in museums, China’s domestic tourists, especially the young and the nouveau riche, has long grown out of the “I came, I saw and I shopped” type of tourism. Instead of souvenirs and “I was there” pictures, what they desire is a special experience of exotic and distant cultures.
To distinguish themselves from the crowd who travel with tour buses, they rent bikes, buy Gore-Tex jackets and camping gears, pick up less-conventional routes, and bring their DLSR cameras. All to get an experience special enough to label themselves as a hipster who know the true meaning of traveling when back home. But do they?
To a netizen under the name of “December” who is a frequent traveler to Tibet, the answer is no. As a photography fan, she didn’t even feel like taking out her camera during her recent trip to the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
“Those tourists with DLSR cameras and expensive lens shoot pictures of the Tibetan people as if they are animals in a zoo.” She explained.
To her, the huge influx of domestic tourists has greatly intruded local Tibetan people’s daily life without any respect or self-reflection. In a post titled “She is Crying on the Hill”, she documented moments where she thought the tourists have crossed a line.
Especially telling is a set of pictures where, outside a temple, a young Tibetan woman blocked her face to silently protest to surrounding “photographers” who asked her to turn around to show the best angle of her face.
What December saw during the trip made her extremely upset. The worst is that she can feel that local people have become more and more unfriendly to tourists year after year.
When talking about tensions between ethnic minorities and the Han people in remote regions of Tibet and Xinjiang (Uyghur), the discussion often focuses on historical, political and socioeconomic reasons, such as how the Chinese government has censored local religion and how the Han people have taken advantage of local resources.
Tourism, which is an important industry in these regions, is seldom mentioned. Yet, exploitative mass tourism is creating some fundamental distrust between local people and the Han people. Like netizen 微博李克 commented: “It’s only a matter of time before these tourists get beaten up by local Tibetans.”
“Japanese tourists are much better [than Chinese tourists]. When they said that they’d mail photos back to us, they kept their promises. But you guys [Chinese tourists] never did. All that you guys do is telling lies.” One Tibetan girl told December.