KOBE -- Aboard a passenger ferry bound for Japan, 61 year old Zhang Suqing has one thing on his mind: karaoke greatness.
The "Yanjing" ferry carries Chinese tourists on the two day journey from Tianjin, a port city on China's east coast, across the Yellow Sea to Kobe, Japan. On the second night of the voyage, its dining room tranforms into an impromptu karaoke hall. Sipping from steaming flasks of tea and chomping on sunflower seeds, a group of mostly elderly Chinese tourists sit in an expectant semicircle, as fellow travellers belt out high energy Chinese hits and sentimental ballads.
Retired engineer Zhang wins the biggest applause of the night, treating the crowd to a patriotic number about a Chinese mountain range. He bows diffidently to receive a bunch of flowers from one of the ship's younger female passengers, as the the Yellow Sea churns below.
China is expected to become the world's biggest exporter of tourists for the first time this year, with about 78 million Chinese expected to travel abroad in 2012, according to the World Tourism Organization. In comparison, 64 million US tourists made trips abroad in 2010. China's outbound tourists are transforming the world's travel sector, as hotels scramble to hire Mandarin speakers, and foreign countries invest millions in PR campaigns aimed at raising their profile in China.
Like most of China's outbound tourists, Zhang travels as part of a tour group, in order to save money. "I'd never be able to afford the trip if I arranged it on my own," he said. Zhang may count himself as a member of China's emerging middle class, but keeping costs down is still a priority. That means enduring two days of seasickness to save on flight costs, and shunning the ship's bar in favour of refills of tea from a gurgling samovar. "I saved for this trip for over a year," he said.
Chinese tourists tend to be older than their western counterparts, with members of sightseeing groups having an average age of 39, according to research by Australia's Tourism Board. That partly explains why Zhang's choice of a 1960s song went down so well.
Reducing costs means packing as much sightseeing as possible into a short period, Liu Kongqi, who works as a wedding plannner in Beijing, said. Liu has already travelled to Scandanavia, Belgium and France with her husband on whirlwind five day trips. "I'm not interested in spending my vacation on the beach," she said "We only want to visit developed countries, where people are civilized."
Places with a connection to Chinese history are proving especially popular with China's outbound tourists. Karl Marx's German birthplace, Trier, has seen an influx of Chinese visitors in recent years. In Japan, the search for Chinese culture draws tourists Kyoto, where Zhang hopes to witness the influence of classical Chinese architecture on the ancient capital.
While Chinese tourists might be scrimp on food and hotels, they show less restraint when it comes to shopping abroad. “We have to come back with something to give our family and friends,” Zhang said. Family members expect to receive brand-name electronics, clothing and cosmetics, which are often cheaper abroad due to Chinese import taxes. Chinese tourists set aside over a third of their vacation budget for shopping, according to a 2008 study by the European Travel Commission.
Chinese tourist spending has been a boost to Japan's ailing economy. Japan soaked up over a million Chinese tourists last year, around twice the number of US visitors to the country, and Chinese visitors to Japan spend more than twice as much as British or US tourists, according to the Japan Tourism Agency. The country's tourism ministry hopes to boost the number of Chinese visitors to 6 million by 2020, and has already relaxed visa restrictions for Chinese travellers.
While China's middle class tourists strain their vocal cords in the Yanjing's dining room, away from the noise, a group of six young Chinese travellers are preparing for a longer stay in Japan.
Wu Zhangyu, a 24 year old former motorbike driver from a village in northern China, paid the equivalent of US$10,000 to an agent who found him a two year job in Japan as an agricultural labourer. His five companions paid the same fee. "I'll have to work for six months just to pay the money back," Wu said. Japan is home to more than 100 thousand low-paid Chinese workers, who do menial jobs in factories and on farms, according to the China Labour Bulletin.
Wu made the sea-crossing with a single bag of clothes, and a few packets of dried noodles. A tag with a Japanese name he has just learn how to pronounce is tagged to his sports jacket. He isn't sure exactly which region of Japan he'll end up working in, or whether he'll be able to stay with his travelling companions after he arrives. It's a reminder that while China's outbound tourism market will continue to grow over the next decade, the sightseeing and gift-buying frenzy of a trip abroad with a tour group will remain a remote prospect for most Chinese people.
*Note: Some names have been changed at the request of interviewees.