CHIANG RAI – Accused of urinating in public, spitting on the street, or kicking a sacred temple bell – free-spending Chinese tourists are receiving a mixed welcome as their soaring numbers help the kingdom’s creaking economy.
Growing outrage over the perceived disrespect of visitors from the Asian giant saw authorities print thousands of Chinese-language etiquette manuals earlier this year in a bid to keep their tourists in check.
Last month it was a photo of a young girl peeing in the grounds of Bangkok’s Grand Palace that triggered the latest round of enraged, and sometimes racist, comments as Thai social media users claimed she was Chinese.
In March a Thai model’s video of tourists from China jumping the queue at an airport was viewed more than two million times and saw a similarly angry rant against Thailand’s largest group of foreign holidaymakers.
At the gleaming Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, in northern Chiang Rai province, owner Chalermchai Kositpipat complained about the state of the toilets after a recent visit by a Chinese group.
“We had problems with some Chinese who defecated anywhere, so I asked the guides to explain to them that rules must be respected in Thailand,” Chalermchai told AFP, having earlier threatened to refuse the nationals entry.
But he stopped short of issuing a ban, and like Thai authorities is loath to cut out the Chinese at a time when they are bucking the trend of dipping visitor figures in the kingdom, where tourism accounts for 8.5 percent of gross domestic product.
Last year around 4.6 million Chinese nationals visited Thailand, with the average tourist spending 5,500 baht ($160) per day – more than the average European visitor.
Their collective contribution, expected to reach $5.6 billion this year, is not one the ruling junta can afford to lose as it struggles to revive a sclerotic economy — one of its key promises after seizing power from an elected government in May 2014 that was paralysed by months of protests in Bangkok.
At the White Temple, Thai tour guide Pin Su says her job has become an art in diplomacy due to the growing number of Chinese visitors.
“They do not always pay attention, they spit, talk loudly, sometimes they leave the toilet in a catastrophic state,” she said in between ferrying tourists around the building.
“But I cannot remind them every day that we must be careful to be clean. I do not want to offend them. And all these tourists, it is for Thailand!”
Bangkok’s ruling generals have been busy courting Beijing as they build new diplomatic allies after last year’s coup was widely condemned by Western nations, including longtime friend the United States.
Late last year the two Asian nations forged new agricultural ties, and Beijing was also granted a major railway contract to construct two new lines criss-crossing Thailand.
With the recent easing of visa rules between the kingdom and China, where the growing ranks of the middle-classes are increasingly holidaying abroad, even more Chinese tourists are expected to arrive in Thailand this year.
Unsurprisingly, Thai authorities appear keen to downplay any incidents of strife.
“Chinese tourists do not create problems for us. They are nice tourists,” said Srisuda Wanapinyosak, an executive director at the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
“But sometimes there might be cultural misunderstandings as we have different cultures,” she admitted before running through the tips laid out for the Chinese in the new manuals.
Back at the White Temple, Cai Zheng Hua and his wife from Fujian, a province in southeast China, are enjoying their long-awaited honeymoon.
He says that while some of his compatriots may “not have enough education to know how to behave”, they are very much in a “small minority”.
For most visitors Thailand is a “dream” and “very fashionable”, said the holidaymaker, raving about the architecture at the site.