With the arrival of the Arirang Festival last month, North Korea’s tourism industry is once again making headlines. The most recent wave of reports, however, has focused less on tourist numbers and more on the reception of the increasingly common Chinese visitors to the hermit kingdom. A quick perusal of these reports suggests that locals are not impressed with the manners of their guests.
As Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours told the South China Morning Post, Chinese tourists are known to throw sweets to North Korean children “like they’re feeding ducks. The North Koreans think that’s undignified and offensive.” He added, “If mainland tourists go to a school performance, they don’t have any qualms about rushing to the stage and picking up a child for photos.”
According to Cockerell, wandering into undesignated areas is another item that can be added to this list of faux pas. He told The Diplomat, “I do know of a couple of cases in which Chinese tourists simply assumed that because they are Chinese (and therefore rhetorically closer to the North Koreans) that the restrictions on the free movement of tourists does not apply to them. So they have wandered off into the Pyongyang night and then caused problems for their guides who have to account for their actions.”
On balance, he added, “I have also known this to happen with non-Chinese. Perhaps the fact that it tends to be Chinese tourists who do this may be reflective of the fact that the Chinese make up the largest percentage of foreign tourists.”
The number of Chinese tourists visiting North Korea each year is up for debate. According to The South China Morning Post, China’s tourism office says 237,400 Chinese travelled to North Korea last year, up 22.5 percent from 2011. Meanwhile, a North Korean tourism official has proclaimed as many as 700,000 crossed the border in 2010-2011.
Pyongyang is simply feeling the presence of the “ugly Chinese tourist” – a new breed of traveler with which the world is still coming to grips. A total of 83 million travelers from the mainland spent $102 billion gallivanting around the globe last year alone.
The stereotypes – uncouth, loud – were embodied in the actions of Ding Jinghao who had the gall to etch “Ding Jinhao was here” into the surface of Egypt’s 3,500-year-old Luxor Temple in May. From public urination and spitting to loud banter and a general lack of cultural sensitivity, tourists from the mainland have developed something of a reputation from Paris to Thailand and even nearby Hong Kong.
North Koreans are not alone. Chinese have been banned from a boutique hotel in Paris, where there is a sign written only in Chinese characters warns against defecation and urination on a museum’s grounds. Buddhist monks have struggled to explain the intricacies of temple etiquette to Chinese visitors in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where numerous Chinese women have entered temples in shorts. When asked why he had come to Chiang Mai for Chinese New Year, one Chinese man in his 30s pointed to himself and said with exaggerated importance, “I am rich.”
Granted, these examples are blatant. But they have been reported too many times to ignore. “To wildly generalize Chinese tourists can be a bit brash, loud, and unsubtle…shouting, spitting, speaking down to service industry staff,” Cockerell said. “These are qualities not shared by most North Koreans. This isn’t totally egregious of course and is behavior common in China. But it stands out in North Korea a lot more. It’s usually greeted with rolled-eyeballs rather than confrontation from the Koreans though.”
Another major factor is the sheer size of Chinese tour groups. According to Cockerell, a typical Chinese group will cram 50 people onto a 50-seat bus, whereas most Western tour groups will only take up to around 20 on a bus of a similar size to allow for a bit more breathing room.
Further, while Chinese tours cater to the Chinese love of dining, Western tours tend to underemphasize meals in favor of sites, to which they also have increased access. Chinese tours are not permitted to visit the Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il or the city of Hamhung.
“The Western tours see more, last longer and are less traditionally ‘tour groupy’ than the Chinese tours,” Cockerell said. “We don’t have anyone holding a flag and nobody wears the same color hats.”
While conceding that the complaints against Chinese tour groups have a basis in fact, Cockerell has a more nuanced view of these visitors to the North. He recalls conversations with those born in North Korea 1953-1958 when the Chinese army was stationed in the country.
“I don’t believe anyone goes to North Korea with the intention of causing offense to anyone,” he said. “Generally, the Chinese tourists in North Korea are just like the non-Chinese tourists. They stay in their groups, try to have fun, and try to learn about the county they are visiting. Personally, I love traveling with them.”