Chinese tourism in Italy

The Lombardy Chambers of commerce organised a seminar on Chinese tourism in Italy. When I received the invitation I didn’t hesitate to join, as I spent the last two summers in China and the theme tickled my curiosity. I knew I’d have something to learn, to benchmark my knowledge and impressions against, and probably also a word to say.

Disappointing marks

From a survey conducted among Shanghai Expo visitors, it appears that Italy doesn’t rank higher than the 4th place when judged from a variety of aspects. Its positioning is therefore not outstanding, and surprisingly not when judged for cultural assets and museums, where it follows China, France and (sic) the US. This is a hard blow to the Italians’ take on their country as being the richest in the world when it comes to culture and art.

While I suspected that the results reveal a perception expressed by people who only have a vague idea of my country, I couldn’t fail to notice a mismatch between the Italians’ and the Chinese notion of Italy.

A personal survey

According to casual exchanges I had with people when travelling, Italy is known for its fashion, glamorous lifestyle and beauty; then its football clubs, sports cars and its place among the G8 countries. When the talk was about monuments, the Chinese know the leaning tower of Pisa, Venice, the Coliseum. Talking about food, it is of course pizza and spaghetti (or Yidali mian), a common dish between our countries and a source of amicable dispute as to which was its first inventor. Mafia also claims attention, sadly.

On the other hand, Italians are justly proud of their long history and ancient civilisation, a crucial one that shaped Europe at its onset; and the far-reaching influence of their tremendously creative genius at other subsequent periods. Italy’s influence is even more extraordinary if we think that the spread of her culture was not supported by a military conquering power (given that it was a political nothingness for centuries), but gained ground through universal appeal. Italy thinks its greatest moment of glory lies in the past.

More about my two journeys around China:

Let’s bet on the present

All things considered, Italy seems to be better known in China for what it is in the present: a modern country renowned for both beautiful landscapes and attractive cities, but even more for its inventiveness in the technological field and in the arts borne of the consumer society, such as fashion and design; finally, its attractive lifestyle and the delicious food.

Italy has obviously much more to offer apart from the aforementioned stereotyped images. However, the average Chinese tourist, confronted with an overflow of artistic production, is usually unable to take in more than a limited amount and cannot fully appreciate what we believe is the best side of our country, its arts. Another strong point, food, which reaches well beyond pizza and spaghetti, is not necessarily loved by someone with completely different culinary tastes.

Watching the tourists in China

On visiting the Terracotta army last year, I was shocked to see the bustling commercial area twice as large as the archaeological site. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw swarms of Chinese visitors gadding on the ground level of the museum, concerned with its construction, ribbon-cutting and official visits to the compound by party members, whereas they snubbed the two other floors displaying an informative story of the army and its unearthing. I was bewildered to see people in googy poses for snapshots near the statues, against an artificial backdrop, or sliding their arms and head into the holes of a dummy terracotta soldier.

The list of my surprises was long, but the conclusion was that the average Chinese person’s interest in culture is low – and we’re talking about their native civilization – even among those who could afford stumping up a hefty admission fee. Move to a culturally different setting and no wonder that a modest educational background leaves little space to its full appreciation.

The motives for tourism

Leisure is the motive for tourism for those who have reached affluent status in China’s fast-growing economy. It is enjoyed in a collective form as individualism is not so developed as in the West. Chinese tourists feel reassured going where everyone goes, doing what everyone does and buying what everyone buys. They don’t seem to care much about the crowdedness of sites, which was a major disturbance upon my mind.

When the trip is overseas, other factors play in, notably acquiring the status bestowed by such a journey, gathering a loot of luxury goods and boasting as many destinations as possible.

Not all alike

Up to now, I’ve lumped all Chinese people together, which is obviously incorrect and misleading. It struck me as a visitor to observe several contradictory Chinas living side by side just in the Han populated areas along the east coast. The differences are even greater when you move inland towards geographically, economically, not to say culturally, distant provinces.

The young generation of the so-called post-80’s and their parents from the rich urban society are the most open-minded and the ones who have absorbed the steered capitalism mentality where getting rich is not only feasible but also desirable. Their economic possibilities are on the increase thanks to government policies aiming at expanding the middle class. The one-party rule, in exchange for unchallenged leadership, has allowed the work pressure on the middle classes, generated by the vertiginous growth rate, to be vented through the safety valve of tourism.

The middle-class is the most influenced by fashion and is likely to make allowances to westernised patterns; their need to be part of the global scene is great, especially when they come to Europe where they still fell tolerated rather than welcome. Apart from the millionaires, this class is the one who, given the means and a still hard to obtain visa, is most likely to undertake a journey to Europe. If the cultural gap between China and the west is big, it is less so among the middle class that is inclined to ape western trends.

Adapting to the Chinese

On observing people in a mid-range Chinese restaurant, a westerner is usually surprised at the confusion, the noise and the eating conventions of which the use of chopsticks is only the most apparent demonstration.

Specialising a hotel facility for receiving Chinese groups means taking steps towards meeting their needs. It doesn’t necessarily require a big investment to analyse their culture and expectations – sometimes little attentions are enough, like providing electric kettles in the rooms for their tea or hot drinking water. Language barriers should also be overcome by providing Chinese material and directions. The general set-up should not exceed in that direction, or it will strip itself of the local Italian character.

Nevertheless, package tours usually provide for only one typical meal in each country, where the rest are based on Chinese cooking. Given that pandering the Chinese travellers at table is a requisite, an important consideration for an entrepreneur about to embark on investments is then about costs and opportunities. Chinese groups tend in fact to save on accommodation expenses and their patronage may not be compatible with other guests.

Finally, we must to be aware that in the customer-provider relationship, the Chinese usually expect deferent service. I am always shocked at the way people call the waiter or the owner (laoban) in a restaurant in China, using a tone of voice signifying that the customer is master and the waiter is servant. Their service culture is not democratic.

The early bird

The Chinese authorities have taken the pragmatic approach and are already making the most of the enormous potentialities of domestic tourism. Like the Terracotta army, countless tourist attractions have been converted into giant theme parks with at least something authentic at heart, but way too commercial for my taste. The stress on culture, if any, is low-profile, whereas the commercial side is boosted to the top, starting from the costly entrance fees levied. It’s a pragmatic approach that stems from the popular culture of the most populous country in the world.

If we want to aim at the Chinese market, we should make an effort to meet the Chinese perception of Italy and entice them along those lines. Naturally, it will be our duty to enrich their preformed image and let them leave with a richer picture that has gained depth and colour from their former flattened one.

The tourist flows still stick to few major Italian towns, but they won’t be long before other places will be able to profit from new opportunities. We had better start thinking and planning now in order to direct the course of events rather that wait until other European competitors have eaten the cake and only the crumbles are left for us.