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Current Issues in Tourism

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Tourism Research in China: Understanding the


Unique Cultural Contexts and Complexities

Honggang Xu , Peiyi Ding & Jan Packer

To cite this article: Honggang Xu , Peiyi Ding & Jan Packer (2008) Tourism Research in China:
Understanding the Unique Cultural Contexts and Complexities, Current Issues in Tourism, 11:6,
473-491, DOI: 10.1080/13683500802475737

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13683500802475737

Published online: 19 Dec 2008.

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Tourism Research in China: Understanding
the Unique Cultural Contexts and
Complexities
Honggang Xu
Sun Yat-Sen University, China
Peiyi Ding and Jan Packer
The University of Queensland, Australia

China provides many interesting opportunities for tourism research owing to its
unique historic, economic and cultural background. This paper provides an overview
of tourism research in China and provides an insight into the unique cultural contexts
and complexities that have influenced tourism development and tourist behaviour.
The perspectives, traditions and contexts of Chinese tourism research are explored
by focussing on two important research areas: tourism development and tourism cul-
tural studies. As a result of China’s increasing openness to the international academic
world, Western tourism research has begun to have a significant impact on research in
China. However, the uncritical adoption of Western theories and research paradigms
is not always appropriate. Key issues for facilitating the future development of
tourism research in China are discussed.

doi: 10.1080/13683500802475737

Introduction
Since reform and open-door policies were initiated in 1978, China’s tourism
industry has become the most promising and fastest growing sector of China’s
tertiary industry. After some delays, tourism research has also followed this
trend, growing at an exponential rate.
With the growth of tourism research, review papers have become popular in
Chinese journals. These indicate significant progress in areas such as the status
of tourism development, the host – guest relationship and tourism resources
management, and confirm the potential of tourism as a research area with
a promising diversity of topics for study (Aramberri & Xie, 2003; Li & Zhao,
2007). At the same time, however, concerns regarding the quality and
breadth of vision of tourism research have also been expressed. For example,
Xie (2003) criticised the narrowness and lack of continuity in the research ques-
tions addressed by Chinese tourism research. He suggested that studies tended
to focus on a few topics that have been defined and promoted by the govern-
ment. Other criticisms include the lack of rigorous methodologies, and avoid-
ance of sensitive topics such as casinos and sex tourism (Bao & Zhang, 2004;
Yu et al., 2006).
Since the late 20th century, access to international academic research
has reached a historically high level in China. Most of the top universities
have purchased the important academic databases, and international tourism

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474 Current Issues in Tourism

journals such as The Annals of Tourism Research and Tourism Management are
widely read and cited. This has led to a growing interest in comparative
studies of Western and Chinese tourism research. Such comparative studies
not only identify the gaps and deficiencies in Chinese tourism research, but
also build a vision for future tourism research in China. However, the simple
assumption that Chinese research paradigms (including research questions,
concepts and theories) will merely follow those of Western research has not
been carefully examined. It is dangerous to assume that the introduction of
Western concepts and analytical constructs will automatically enhance the
Chinese capacity for conducting tourism research and help Chinese researchers
to build tourism theories. It is equally dangerous to ignore the application of
Western theories in the Chinese context. Rather, it is necessary to carefully
and critically examine the compatibility between Western and Chinese tourism
research paradigms.
For the past 150 years, from the Qing Dynasty, through the Modern China
Period, and up to the present time, there has been little opportunity to pause
and reflect on research practice (Huang, 1998). Chinese intellectuals, influenced
by Confucius’ teaching, have traditionally conducted research to obtain knowl-
edge useful for society. This motivation to contribute to nation building, social
modernity and cultural revival has become even stronger with increasing
contact with the Western world.
This paper attempts to explore the perspectives and constraints of Chinese
tourism research and theory development by examining two important
research areas: tourism development and tourism cultural studies. We
discuss the complexities associated with these research areas in the Chinese
context, and the implications for future research in Chinese tourism. It is not
our intention, however, to present a comprehensive review of the literature
in these areas.
Tourism development and tourism cultural studies were selected to be exam-
ined not only because they are the most academically studied areas, but also
because they invoke some of the key issues relating to the modernisation of
China, which has been, and will continue to be, the major concern for China
and Chinese society. Although the two themes are described separately, they
are closely linked. Within the development theme, for example, the revitalisa-
tion of culture plays an important role and is one of the major drivers of devel-
opment efforts.

Tourism Development
The tourism sector in China is often used as a policy tool to address develop-
ment problems in the transitional economy. Tourism was the first sector to be
opened to the world, and to participate in the competitive global market.
Substantial amounts of the first foreign investments in China were in the
hotel industry. Tourism was also considered to be an important export industry
in the early stages of Chinese development (Lew et al., 2001). The economic,
social and political impacts of tourism were limited in these early stages
because international tourists were concentrated in a few select cities, such
as Beijing and Guilin. More recently, however, the growth of the Chinese
Tourism Research in China 475

economy has been beyond expectation and the structure of the tourism market
has undergone great changes (Zhang, 1997). Within a short time, since the mid-
1990s, domestic tourism has out-paced international tourism, even in the
so-called ‘international tourism destinations’ (see Table 1). Domestic tourism
is thus perceived to have had greater social and economic impacts than
inbound tourism.
In the late 1990s, tourism was expected to play an important role in increas-
ing domestic consumption. With the escalating economic disparity between
eastern and western regions of China, and between urban and rural areas,
tourism has come to be regarded as a passport for development in poorer
regions, and has been used as a regional development policy tool. In the
National Government Tenth Five Year Plan and the Western Regional
Development Program, the Central Government identified tourism as one of
the three strategies to facilitate development in western regions. By developing
tourism and investing in transportation for tourism development in the rural
and poor regions, these less-developed areas were expected to attract flows
of tourists from affluent eastern regions and thus increase opportunities for
development (Liu, 2001). All the provinces in the western regions positioned
tourism as a leading industry in their regional economic development. When
unemployment became the outstanding issue, the significance of tourism’s
capacity to provide employment was acknowledged, thus reinforcing support
for the tourism policy.
As a result of these factors, the direct transfer of tourism development
policies and theories from other countries has not been possible because the
development context is quite different. China is different from the small
island countries where international tourism plays a key role in the national
economy and where local communities are often described as fragile and not
highly modernised. It is also different from American and other Western
countries where modernity is not the key theme and where the regional dis-
parity is not as large as in China. In addition, China is in a transition process
from a closed to an open economy, from a planned to a market economy, and
from a centrally controlled to a more decentralised system.
The significant role played by tourism in the transition period provides good
opportunities for researchers to participate in tourism development practice.
Tourism research in this area has mainly been funded by consultancy work
rather than research grants. Researchers’ personal experiences of tourism
development have enabled them to observe tourism development patterns,
develop theories and also validate these theories through policy formulation
and implementation. Thus, Chinese researchers can gradually build theories
that explain tourism development in China, through a cyclical experiential
learning process, whereby knowledge is created through the transformation
of experience (Kolb, 1974, 1984).
This process of theory building is exemplified in the following discussion of
research in specific areas of tourism dynamics, resource-based tourism devel-
opment, community-based tourism (CBT) development, and other issues of
sustainable tourism development. The discussion demonstrates how factors
specific to the historic, economic and cultural background of China have influ-
enced tourism research and theory development.
476
Table 1 Inbound and domestic tourists in selected tourism cities [Unit: Million person times]
Year 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005
City Domestic Inbound Domestic Inbound Domestic Inbound Domestic Inbound Domestic Inbound
Beijing – 0.93 – 1.00 – 2.07 102.00 2.82 125.0 3.62
Xi’an – 0.21 – 0.25 – 0.41 15.0 0.64 23.46 0.77
Guilin – 0.33 – 0.46 – 0.35 – 0.95 11.04 1.00
Kunming – – – 0.15 – 0.40 – 52.02 19.7 0.69
Chengdu – – 8.4 0.13 15.40 0.12 23.85 0.26 36.19 0.50
Source: Chinese tourism statistical yearbook 2006.

Current Issues in Tourism


Tourism Research in China 477

Tourism dynamics
Due to the rapid, unexpected changes in tourism development in China,
researchers have given particular attention to tourism dynamics and the devel-
opment of growth strategies. New models and theories and a systematic
analytical approach have been developed to explore the structures underlying
these. For instance, based on his long participation in tourism planning, Wu
(1998) proposed a tourism system concept that includes components of govern-
ment, and views tourism growth as a function of government support. Peng
(1999a,b) also argues that tourism development is driven by the interaction
of the tourism demand and supply system with the supporting infrastructures.
He emphasises that tourism development goes beyond the tourism sector and
relies on regional factors such as integration with other sectors and socio-econ-
omic background (Peng 1999a,b; Zhong et al., 2003). Introducing feedback
analysis and simulation methods further demonstrates the complexity of
tourism growth patterns (Xu & Bao, 2000).
The dynamics of change have been extensively explored in relation to urban
tourism in China. It has been found that initial growth is often due to infrastruc-
ture investment, while continuous growth mainly relies on the development of
innovative products and services such as exhibition and business tourism
(Peng, 1999a). Regional cooperation, a kind of organisational innovation, is
expected to provide new opportunities for tourism. Thus, tourism clusters
are expected to become the growth engine for a long period of time (Long &
Bao, 2005; Xu & Tian, 2006).

Resource-based tourism development


Saarinen (2006) identifies three different traditions of sustainability in
tourism research – the resource-, activity-, and community-based traditions.
In China, research and theory building have focussed mainly on the roles of
tourism resources (discussed here) and community participation (discussed
in CBT development).
Tourism is used as a driver for the development of places with natural or cul-
tural resource endowments, but whose economies lag behind (Liu, 2001).
Tourism research was focussed initially on identifying and cataloguing poten-
tial cultural and natural resources for tourism development, and then extended
to investigating the evaluation, reproduction (regeneration) and depletion of
resources. This research has helped to promote a series of protected areas in
China. The need to evaluate the inventoried resources according to their econ-
omic potential in the tourism market was only recognised after the effects of
tourism development on these resources were perceived. Scientific method-
ologies, such as analytic hierarchy processes (AHPs) were introduced (Jin,
2001; Ma et al., 2002). Physical geographers and ecologists carried out
tourism environmental impact assessments using remote sensing and land-
scape ecology methods (Chen & Yang, 2004; Liu & Guang, 2005). Recently,
research on estimating ‘the tourism footprint’ has become popular (Yang &
Li, 2007; Zhang & Zhang, 2004).
Research into the institutional arrangement of national parks became
necessary when this was found to be the key to determining the utilisation
478 Current Issues in Tourism

and protection of the resources, as well as the distribution of welfare among


different groups. In the planned economy era, there were a few National
Scenic Parks and National Cultural Heritages which were owned and
managed by the central government. In the transition period, the management
rights and financial burden of managing national resources were handed down
to the local governments and a dual management structure was instituted. This
decentralisation process provided opportunities and pressures for the locals to
utilise and protect these valuable resources. The tourism development of these
parks only became possible when privatisation was allowed, because local gov-
ernments could not raise enough money to build infrastructure and were also
not allowed to participate in business.
Not all land in China is owned by the national government. When most of the
national parks were established, some of the land was still owned by the local
communities living and cultivating the land inside the parks. Local commu-
nities also expect to use the resources for their own benefit. Thus, conflicts
between the local communities, local governments and management compa-
nies can become intense. Yet, national parks are still regarded as national prop-
erty and public goods. Environmental NGOs and national ministries still have
the right to intervene in the use and protection of the parks. Overall, decentra-
lisation and privatisation increased the number of stakeholders. Governments,
publicly owned enterprises, private companies, communities, tourists and
other NGOs, all have different agendas and can directly or indirectly affect
the effectiveness of the management of the national parks. The dynamics of
the conflicts among these stakeholders determine the status of the protection
and utilisation of the resources.
Theoretical and empirical studies have been conducted regarding the man-
agement model of national parks (Wang, 2002b). Normative studies discuss
how the institutional structure should be designed to achieve sustainable
development, and to allocate property rights, management rights and con-
sumption rights. Empirical studies attempt to identify patterns within the
institutional structures of tourism attractions nationwide, and explore the
relationships between the institutional structure and the efficiency of the sus-
tainable use of the attractions. Although these debates are continuing, several
shared visions have been agreed.
First of all, within the social, cultural and political contexts, the multiple and
even conflicting goals of the protected areas have to be recognised. The utilis-
ation of the resource is closely interrelated with its protection though these
relationships are dynamic and non-linear. The sustainable way to protect
resources is to recognise the conflicting values and utilisation models of these
resources. Ignoring these multiple demands or even criticising them cannot
lead to an effective management model.
Secondly, research indicates the need for cooperation between stakeholders.
Local government still plays a key role in the transition process when there are
no clear policies or regulations on the use or management of public resources.
The political and economic risks of privatisation of the national cultural or
natural resources are high. Tourism develops in those places where local gov-
ernments act as entrepreneurs to start the development process, as supporters
for private businesses and as coordinators of a cooperative network.
Tourism Research in China 479

The importance of the mass media, academics and NGOs as resource protectors
is also perceived; although they are not direct stakeholders and their influences
are still minimal.
Thirdly, institutional dynamics has always been the key research area in
other social sciences such as economics, management, politics and the huma-
nities. Researching the institutional dynamics of the management of natural
resources is a good approach to understanding the complexity of Chinese
society in transition, since it reveals the linkages between the grassroots
communities, the private businesses, and the governments; between the local
governments and central government; and between the public and the local
population.

CBT development
Another of Saarinen’s traditions of sustainability relates to CBT develop-
ment. This approach provides a compromise between environmental protec-
tion and tourism development as it recognises the conflicting goals of
protection and utilisation of the natural and cultural resources. It also attempts
to attain the multiple goals of improving local residents’ life quality, obtaining
economic benefits, protecting the natural and built environment, and providing
a high-quality experience for visitors. All of these are thought to be possible
through the CBT development approach (Choi & Sirakaya, 2006; Murphy,
1985; Scheyvens, 1999). In China, the community becomes an important issue
when decentralisation and the market system make it possible for the commu-
nity to have a voice. Conflicts between the developers and the community,
between different communities, and within communities are frequently
reported and cannot be ignored. Research is needed regarding how to integrate
the community into the development process and to identify the best CBT
model for China.
Various CBT development models have been identified in the literature
(France, 1998; Tosun, 1999; Wang & Wall, 2005), and most if not all of these
are present in China. However, in order to be relevant to China, models of
CBT need to be developed specifically for the Chinese context. As a result of
Chinese political and cultural systems, communities in China have little real
control over the process of development. It is thus realised that sharing in the
benefits of tourism development is more important than sharing in the manage-
ment and control of the development process (Bao & Sun, 2006; Li, 2006; Wang &
Wall, 2005).
The extent to which communities have ownership of the resources deter-
mines the bargaining power of the community, and the management model
that will be most effective. For most of the national parks, communities own
only a portion of the land or only have usage rights. For many cultural villages,
the communities own the heritage. Research is needed to explore the appropri-
ate CBT models for these different contexts. For instance, Ying and Zhou (2007)
argue that an effective village-based tourism model should be an endogenous
development model. A ‘communal approach’ is a better description than a par-
ticipation approach. A communal approach in tourism development, to some
extent, may be seen as an eclectic strategy to achieve a compromise between
the democratic ideology and social reality in China.
480 Current Issues in Tourism

Although CBT is a new concept in China, community-based development


has a tradition both in practice and in academic research. Still, the role of the
community in the social system is undergoing changes in the current period
of transition. The leadership, economic and cultural structures within and
outside communities are all changing. Tourism research has not paid sufficient
attention to understanding the dynamics of communities and community
tourism in periods of transition. Empirical cases and theoretical analyses are
both needed. Learning from other research in rural areas will be especially
beneficial.

Other issues of sustainable tourism development


Although Chinese tourism researchers and the tourism industry are often cri-
ticised as lacking in concern for sustainability, the multiple goals of tourism
development were perceived right from the start of tourism development.
Yet, sustainable tourism research in China faces some conceptual problems.
There is not a clear picture of the sustainable tourism sector, or sustainable
regional development, or global sustainable development. This confusion,
which is also seen in tourism research in the international journals, can lead
to counterintuitive policy results.
For instance, some tourism destinations over-emphasise tourism develop-
ment strategies and therefore become caught up in the ‘resource curse’
problem (Xu, 2006). It has been observed that, although tourism serves as the
first driving force for urbanisation and regional development, within a short
time, regions face the problem of limits to growth. The limits are often due to
lack of innovation and crowding-out effects created by over-reliance on mono-
polised tourism resources for attracting mass tourists. Empirical research on
this issue is worth considering.
The arrival of the car-dependent society is considered to be an opportunity
for tourism regeneration and development, especially for those old tourism
destinations and peripheral regions which are difficult to access. Tourism
plans and policies have been formulated to encourage car-dependent travelling
behaviour. However, the evaluation of the negative impacts and management
of car-dependent tourist behaviour are not yet integrated into tourism planning
and policy.
Chinese scholars cannot avoid the tension between the mass tourism model
and the sustainable alternative model promoted in the West. Within the social,
political and cultural contexts of China, the mass tourism development model
is a rational choice. There is a growing demand from the domestic and inter-
national tourist markets on the famous, historically popular sites such as
Huangshan, the Great Wall and Guilin. There is no substitute for these sites,
because visiting these sites is to experience the places that are described in
the poems and stories learned in childhood. From the supply side, mass
tourism development can facilitate big enterprises, increase the tax income
and drive urbanisation. It is only through mass tourism that modernisation
can be obtained and demonstrated. Without these observable indicators
of modernisation, tourism development cannot be supported and must be
substituted by other modernisation tools, which could be sub-optimal for the
Tourism Research in China 481

region as a whole. However, these basic contexts are often ignored in tourism
development research.
International tourism research often criticises mass tourism as being unsus-
tainable and proposes an alternative tourism, and some Chinese scholars
have also advocated this approach. Alternative tourism development models
are often car-dependent, target an upper-end tourism market and aim to be
environmentally friendly. However, these policies are not possible in China
given that large-scale infrastructure for regional development is already in
place, and the desire for mass tourism development is very high, both in
terms of supply and demand. Effective policies need to be based on the
social, cultural and political contexts of China rather than ideologies which
have emerged from Western contexts.
There is thus a need to study sustainable mass tourism, which is a reality of
tourism development in China, not because it is unavoidable, but because it
may be a better solution in some regions, especially when a system of compen-
sation and benefit-sharing is in place. Ignoring mass tourism development and
management models would be harmful both to tourism research and to
Chinese society. Considering the significant regional diversity in China, more
empirical research is needed regarding integrated development planning and
its application in local communities.

Tourism Cultural Studies


Since the 19th century, the survival and development of traditional Chinese
culture in the global system has been a major concern among intellectuals in
China. There was a short period in the 1980s when Western theories were pre-
ferred and highly promoted. Yet from the 1990s, there was a strong revival of
Chinese culture. For instance, tourism cultural studies were promoted as a
way to preserve Chinese traditional culture and to increase awareness of love
of country and nationality (Luo & Li, 1991). From the beginning of tourism
research in the early 1980s, it has been understood that Chinese culture plays
a very important role in tourism, and the study of the importance of culture
for tourism has been an active research area. Although definitions of tourism
culture and its scope are debated (Yan & Zhuang, 2007), it is generally
agreed that the cultural aspects of the ‘guests’ (their motivation and beha-
viours); the cultural aspects of the ‘host society or nature’; and the host–
guest relationship should all become the subject of research.
Yu (1995) noted that, compared with other research areas, tourism cultural
studies have followed a more traditional Chinese research methodology
which presents the authors’ perspectives based on their shared understanding
and contextualisation of meaning. These works would not be considered to
follow a rigorous ‘scientific’ methodology. It is often difficult to communicate
this kind of research as it lacks an effective approach to construct concepts
and develop theory. Yet, these studies explain Chinese tourism from a cultural
perspective. They provide a context in which an analytical framework for
Chinese tourism studies could be developed and are particularly helpful
when developing a critical review of Western paradigms when they are
applied in China.
482 Current Issues in Tourism

The tourist motivation


Chinese traditional philosophies have had a fundamental impact on Chinese
tourists’ motivation and attitudes toward travelling. Even when Confucian and
Taoist philosophies cannot be understood clearly by the younger generations,
their philosophical legacy is everywhere and their doctrines are accepted as
‘common sense’. Research has been undertaken to explain the linkages
between these doctrines and tourist motivation.
The purpose of travelling has been closely related with utility. Although
Confucius’ teaching that one should not go far away while one’s parents are
still alive has a significant impact on Chinese tourist behaviour, he also rec-
ommended travelling for the sake of learning. Travelling should not be under-
taken unless there is a strong purpose and the purpose can be moral
improvement and self-enlightenment. This teaching is different from Western
culture, where discovering exotic cultures and places is often the goal.
This teaching and tradition does not only impact domestic tourists, but also
Chinese outbound tourists. Since the 19th century, most Chinese travelling
abroad expect to learn from Westerners (Ma, 1998). Chinese outbound tourists
to Western countries do not seek leisure (Arlt, 2005), but rather they attempt to
learn from the West and find potential business opportunities.
The study of nature is a highly recommended reason for travel according to
both Taoism and Confucius. Confucius teaches that human beings should learn
from nature. ‘Kind (ren) man enjoys mountain’; ‘Wise (zhi) man enjoys water’.
Taoism suggests that man should follow nature, search for aesthetic values and
joy from experiencing nature and being fully integrated with nature. No matter
what philosophies people have followed, to be close to or part of nature is a
common theme, whether to find the meaning of life, free the soul, or obtain
inspiration for writing.
The experience of travelling with friends and relatives is also an important
motivation. For instance, Shu’s research demonstrates the importance of
family support in the seniors’ tourist motivation in China (Hsu et al., 2007).
On the other hand, some teachings caution against travel (Chang, 2007).
Confucius’ teaching ‘Devout sons should not climb or be close to the deep
valley’ makes the Chinese extremely careful about making the decision to
travel. Although the new Chinese generation is much influenced by Western
culture and follows the fashion of searching for adventure, for most people
the traditional culture places constraints on travelling far to remote and
unknown areas.

The attractive landscape


Chinese tourists demonstrate a strong preference for landscapes that have
become familiar through the images created by poets and artists throughout
history. A style of Chinese poetry and painting called Shanghui poems and
Shanshui landscape paintings flourished in the Weijin Dynasty and has influ-
enced many scholars. Such scholars were often highly mobile and their foot-
prints covered the whole country. As a result, there is an extensive travel
literature throughout Chinese history. Their articles are carved on special
stones and wood, which adds a special flavour to the Chinese landscape.
Tourism Research in China 483

The attractiveness of the mountains and scenic places is not evaluated


according to their natural beauty per se, but according to their connections
with these famous people and poets. Thus, the presence of good articles and
poems plays an extremely important role in the ranking of natural sites. For
instance, Tianlao Mountain became well known due to Li Bai’s poem.
Yueyanlou was nothing until Fan Zhongyan, a famous scholar in the Song
Dynasty, wrote an essay memorialising the reconstruction of the building.
This inseparable connectedness of cultural and natural heritage has been
acknowledged by UNESCO, which links these two aspects by giving the
dual title to Chinese scenic mountains. The tradition for the Chinese to visit
places that are described by famous poets helps to explain the overcrowding
of a few popular sites.
This heavy reliance on famous poets to increase the attractiveness of tourism
sites still influences tourism planners and developers. The newly ‘discovered
and explored’ nature sites are often concerned about their lack of a traditional
cultural flavour. Various ways to improve this cultural flavour are applied, such
as inviting famous modern artists to write poems or calligraphies.

Hosts’ attitudes
‘Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters?’ Having
friends coming from distant quarters is something delightful, and it is delight-
ful by itself, not because of any other things. Of the same nature is ‘learning
with constant perseverance and application’. It is also something that is plea-
sant by itself and not because of anything else. If we put these two sentences
together, we may say that Confucius teaches us both to love others and to
educate or cultivate ourselves, and these two things are actually closely con-
nected with each other. According to Confucius, loving others is a great way
of cultivating ourselves, or a great way for us to learn to be human beings in
the full sense. That is why the concept ren is so important in the doctrine of
Confucius and the later Confucians.
Research regarding the attitudes of local residents in tourist areas is
accumulating. However, these studies mostly follow the conceptual framework
of Doxey’s (1975) Irridex Model, which suggests that residents’ attitudes
towards tourism pass through a series of stages from ‘euphoria’ through
‘apathy’ and ‘irritation’ to ‘antagonism’, as perceived costs exceed the expected
benefits. This dynamic pattern has not been found in China although hosts’ atti-
tude towards tourists and tourism development has been found to change over
a period of time. However, little effort has been made to discuss the assump-
tions behind the Irridex Model as it applies in the Chinese context, and the
possible influence of Confucian values.

The tourist experience


Authenticity is a key concept in the tourist experience. Authenticity is very
important for Chinese tourists, yet it has a different meaning for Chinese
(Yu, 2004). It is the place – an integration of physical building, spiritual
meaning and the site itself – which matters to Chinese travellers. Although a
tourist site may have been torn down many times and rebuilt in a clumsy
way, people would still consider it to be authentic, because it is the place and
484 Current Issues in Tourism

the poems inspired by it that make the tourist site real. The study of Yuyanlou is
an example. Yuyanglou was destroyed many times throughout its history.
However, since there was a tradition to rebuild the buildings on the site, the
rebuilding does not reduce the authenticity. The important experience is to
be at the place where the famous essay describing its reconstruction during
the Song dynasty was written and to re-experience the feelings of the author
(Ying and Ying, 1995).
This cultural context needs to be taken into account in order to understand
ecotourism in China. To be with nature does not mean to experience the hard-
ship or to experience wilderness. Tao Yuanming, the archetypical intelligent
man of noble mind who abandons high office for seclusion in the countryside
is highly regarded. Tao’s most famous poem, still taught in Chinese schools
around the world, depicts the chrysanthemum as a moral symbol of pure
and lofty behaviour and thought. It conjures up an image of Tao sitting in
his garden in his ancestral village in the countryside, with his back turned
on to a government office, his face turned to his rows of chrysanthemums
by the East Gate of his garden with a view towards the distant Southern
Mountain. However, Taoism does not really encourage long-distance travel
to contemplate nature. As Tian (2006) pointed out, Tao did not really mean
to live in the mountains, but to live in a place which was an image of
living in the mountains. When Chinese tourists seek nature, they want to
feel themselves being integrated with nature and to find an ideal place for
their spirits.
In Wenjin dynamics, recumbent travel became a fashion. The readers would
imagine their journey while lying down and reading Shanghui poems and
looking at paintings. It is not only regarded as a substitute for those who
cannot afford to travel, but also a better choice since travellers have more
time to build communication with nature and obtain enlightenment.
When ecotourism concepts and management models were introduced into
China, they often could not be applied effectively. For instance, although the
infrastructure for interpreting the scientific meaning of sites is often in place,
its effectiveness is low because Chinese tourists have little interest in learning
scientific facts about the sites. They are still experiencing nature in the
traditional Chinese way. Interpretation of the meaning of the site therefore
needs to take account of the values and meanings that are important to
Chinese tourists.

The meaning of ‘otherness’


A dichotomy of perspective is often applied by Western scholars, where the
concept of ‘otherness’ is used to explore the cultural impact of tourism.
The ‘other’ and ‘us’ provide the basis for the analytical framework, such as
the host – guest relationship. The more exotic the culture being described,
and the larger the gap between the host – guest cultures, the more appealing
the attractions are assumed to be for the guests. Through the tourists’ eyes,
the guests impose power on the host society and cause cultural change
within the host society. Nature is also regarded as another kind of ‘otherness’.
The preservation of nature acts as a mirror for human beings to know them-
selves through ‘otherness’. There are always conflicts between the guest and
Tourism Research in China 485

the host, either as a society or in nature, and this conflict drives the dynamics
of the relationship.
An examination of research on tourist motivation, tourist experience and
hosts’ attitudes suggests that the dichotomies within the Western approach,
such as ‘we’ and ‘other’, ‘human’ and ‘nature’, may not be suitable for the
study of tourism in China, where the knowledge system is based on an inte-
grated system approach. ‘Otherness’ is not a strong concept in Chinese
culture, and therefore in Chinese tourism (Huang, 2000). Chinese tourists
tend to visit the places that were described by poets and artists and with
which they can find linkage and connections (Yu, 2004). Since tourism activities
are promoted for moral training and self-enlightenment, an interest in other
cultures is often not the focus (Wang, 2000). Influenced by Confucius, ‘is it
not delightful to have friends’, and Mengzi’s teaching, ‘everyone is a brother
under the heaven’, the host does not have a strong attitude of ‘otherness’
towards a guest. The significance of the lack of ‘otherness’ has already been
observed and studied by scholars in other social sciences. The Chinese
always perceive the world, society and nature in a systematic and integrated
way rather than through a dichotomy approach.
‘Tian xia’ is one of the most frequently used words in the ancient Chinese
classics. Literally meaning ‘All under Heaven’ or ‘All the land under
Heaven’, it was used by the ancient Chinese to refer to the whole world as
they knew or imagined it to be. Basically, the idea ‘tian xia’ has the following
three levels of meaning. In its geographical sense, it refers to ‘all the lands
under heaven’ and amounts to the ‘di’ (earth) in the traditional Chinese triad
of ‘tian (heaven), di (earth), ren (people)’, or the whole world that can be inhab-
ited by human beings. Secondly, in its psychological sense, it refers to the men-
tality of all those who live upon the earth. Thirdly, in its ethical – political sense,
it refers to the ideal of the Utopia of everybody under heaven treating each
other like members of one family (Tong, 2006).
Human relationships, the key concept behind Western social theories, are
based on interaction, communication, social exchange and interpersonal con-
flicts. In China, the concepts are the ‘Interpersonal Practice of Zhongyong’
(renyuan), ‘Favour’ (renqing) and ‘Ethical Relationships’ (renlun) which illus-
trate the conflict-avoidance attitude of Chinese society (Zhai, 1993).
In terms of nature, the strong influence is ‘the unity of nature and humans
together’. The basic Fengshui landscape design model is a good example.
Fengshui can be dated back to a period as early as the fourth century BC,
and the consolidation of the system is believed to have taken place in the
third and fourth centuries AD. Almost every city, village, house and tomb in
traditional China bore some mark of Fengshui. Fengshui is an organic, live-
within, and box-within-the-box model. In the eyes of Chinese tourists, nature
is not ‘otherness’. Humans are a part of nature and nature is a part of us
(Yu, 1998).
Overall, there is no strong sense of ‘otherness’ concepts in Chinese culture
and also no tradition of researching ‘otherness’ in the Chinese academic
world, even in modern Chinese anthropology research. The lack of ‘otherness’
in Chinese culture makes it difficult to simply introduce Western concepts and
approaches into tourism research.
486 Current Issues in Tourism

Discussion: Challenges and Opportunities for Chinese Tourism


Research
The growth of the tourism industry brings opportunities for Chinese
academics to carry out interesting and high-quality work. However, these
opportunities do not automatically guarantee quality tourism research.
Simple comparisons of the study themes and topics in the West and in China
cannot provide a vision for Chinese tourism research, and Western theories
and methodologies will not necessarily be applicable in the Chinese context.
Research in the area of tourism development is now at the stage of building
theories based on empirical data. Although many reviews have criticised the
emphasis placed on this topic in China, tourism development will remain an
important research area for a long time, and achieving sustainable tourism
development is still the biggest challenge. Quality research on this topic
will provide an effective explanation of development practices and will
enable innovative and effective policies to be based on an understanding of
the internal structures of development. A further challenge for tourism
research in this area will be to build on theories outside the tourism sector
that provide insights regarding the development and modernity of Chinese
society.
Research in the area of tourism cultural studies is also important, and faces
additional challenges. The study of tourist culture has shown a declining
trend in the major Chinese academic journals, and little of this research has
been exposed to international academic scrutiny (Yan & Zhuang, 2007). As
the perspectives and knowledge systems of Chinese culture are different
from those of the West, the direct introduction of a Western research paradigm
is not appropriate. There is a need to develop an innovative methodological
framework and to build theories gradually on a solid foundation.
This paper does not attempt to provide the answers to these challenges and
questions, or to suggest an appropriate research framework. It can only raise
the issues and make tourism researchers aware of them. Particular attention
should be given to the following issues.

Applied versus pure research


There is a need for a balance between applied and pure research. However,
an emphasis on solving practical industry problems should not come at
the expense of a rigorous theory of tourism development. Researchers need
to identify research problems from the practical world and contribute to
the tourism development process. Not only is most tourism research spon-
sored by industries and the government, but the development of an appro-
priate analytical framework will only be possible when the research is
based on solid empirical data that have been validated through application.
This practice-driven research tradition has proven to be effective in China
over the past centuries (Huang, 2003). Researchers need to observe and par-
ticipate in tourism development in China in order to examine and under-
stand the assumptions underlying development theories borrowed from
the West. This is consistent with the theory-building cycle suggested by
Kolb (1984).
Tourism Research in China 487

Careful examination of introduced Western theories and methods


Chinese tourism research has benefited greatly from the influx of ideas and
methods from international tourism research. The diffusion of new concepts
and analytical frameworks from international journals is so rapid that there
is very little gap between the appearance of concepts in international and dom-
estic academic journals. The increasing pressure on Chinese domestic scholars
to publish in international journals also accelerates this process of diffusion.
Such a fast and widespread introduction of Western concepts does not allow
time for Chinese researchers to fully examine the context of these theories
and the assumptions behind them before they are applied. A lack of critical
review is evident in the literature review section of dissertations and even pub-
lished papers. Often the literature review is divided into two parts: a review of
literature from English journals and a review of the Chinese domestic literature,
followed by a simple comparison of the two. Further discussion of the different
patterns of tourism behaviour, critical review of the adequacy of Western
models in explaining Chinese tourism phenomena, and development of new
theories that are specifically relevant to the Chinese context are required.
Research methods may also need to be critically reviewed and adapted
before being applied in the Chinese context. For instance, Wang (2005)
pointed out that there are limitations and dangers in adopting the ethnographic
approach in a highly civilised society such as China, since the approach was
developed by Western anthropologists to study less-sophisticated societies.

Learn from other disciplines


Tourism research in China has been isolated from the mainstream of huma-
nities and other social-science research. Many of the research problems ident-
ified and emphasised by tourism academics are not regarded as significant
by other academics. Similarly, tourism research papers tend to be narrowly
focused on tourism subjects with few linkages to broader issues and theories.
Thus, most tourism research papers find it difficult to secure publication in
the mainstream journals. In addition, Chinese tourism research tends to con-
centrate on a few ‘hot’ topics and lacks any really innovative concepts. After
comparing Chinese and US dissertation topics, Chen (2006) concluded that
the areas of research interest in China are much more limited than those in
the US. For instance, the percentage of PhD dissertations in China on ecotour-
ism is 5 times greater in China than in North America.
What is particularly unfortunate is that tourism research has benefited
little from the knowledge and theories accumulated by other Chinese social
and anthropology researchers for nearly a century. The questions encountered
in relation to tourism cultural studies have been debated and tested for many
years in other disciplines. Native anthropologists and social scientists (bentu
xuezhe) in China have sought to detach their research practices from their
foreign, historical origins and contemporary counterparts. Their experiences
can be beneficial to Chinese tourism researchers. These researchers have
also begun to construct an analytical framework based on the Chinese knowl-
edge system; for instance, renlun (human ethics), renqing (human reasonable
relationships), renyuan (human connections) and mianzi (face) are recognised
488 Current Issues in Tourism

as important concepts for understanding Chinese society and concepts for


constructing theories. Yet, a search of the Chinese academic database reveals
that these local concepts are seldom used by tourism researchers. To demon-
strate this, the authors first searched for the key words: tourist and motivation,
tourist and decision-making, tourist and behaviour. Then renlun (human
ethics), renqing (human reasonable relationships), renyuan (human connec-
tions), mianzi (face) and family were selected to search in the abstracts of
the papers produced by the first search. The results are reported in Table 2.
The two papers on the family factors in tourism decision-making were both
conducted with international tourists.

Make a global contribution


While it is important at one extreme not to ignore uniquely Chinese concepts
in building theories to explain Chinese tourism phenomena, it is also important
at the other extreme not to isolate ourselves and therefore limit Chinese contri-
butions to tourism theory development at a broad level. Although postmoder-
nists espouse a distaste for grand theory (Harvey, 1990) and believe that local
uniqueness is of more importance than similarities among places, the accumu-
lation of detailed documentation of local knowledge without theory-building
will limit the explanatory power of the research and restrict communication
with scholars outside China. It should be noted that social science (including
tourism) research in Western countries has also developed within a social, cul-
tural and political context, and yet has made a global contribution. Local
tourism studies can contribute at a broader level if histories and politics are
examined using theoretical perspectives drawn from the international litera-
ture.
Innovative methodologies need to be developed that are appropriate for use
in China, while also making a global contribution to tourism research. For

Table 2 An overview of tourist behaviour, tourist motivation and tourist decision-


making

First run: key Second run: abstract


words Renlun Renqing Renyuan Mianzi Family
Tourist þ behaviour 525 0 0 0 0 5
2 0 0 0 0 0
60 0 0 0 0 5
Tourist þ motivation 47 0 0 0 0 3
0 0 0 0 0 0
10 0 0 0 0 1
Tourist þ decision 104 0 0 0 0 2
making 0 0 0 0 0 0
8 0 0 0 0 0

Note: The three lines within each cell indicate the number of journal papers, the
number of PhD dissertations and the number of Master’s dissertations.
Tourism Research in China 489

example, analytical methods based on strong dichotomies are not consistent


with China’s traditional culture and knowledge system, and are often inap-
propriate in the Chinese context (Huang, 2007; Wang, 2002a, b). Finding
alternative ways of characterising and comparing Chinese and Western tourists
may provide new research techniques that can also be applied in wider con-
texts.

Conclusions
This paper provides a context and foundation for advancing tourism
research in China. Two topics that have been well-researched in China –
tourism development and tourism cultural studies – have been examined.
Research in these areas has achieved an understanding of tourism practice in
the context of Chinese culture. However, research in these areas is still con-
sidered to be in the pioneer stage. The next task that researchers need to under-
take is to formulate concepts and theories that attempt to explain Chinese
tourism phenomena. Although the introduction of Western tourism theories
can and should contribute to this process, an over-reliance on Western concepts
and methodology systems can be harmful. Rather, innovative constructs that
are unique to China need to be developed, tested and applied in order to
advance our understanding of tourism in China.
In this regard, Chinese tourism research needs to maintain its tradition of
research based on practice. New concepts and theories must be validated in
the real world. An appropriate balance needs to be found that avoids both
the uncritical use of Western theories and the refusal to accept any learning
from the West. In this way, Chinese tourism research can make a valuable con-
tribution to our understanding of tourism phenomena both in the Chinese
context and at a global level. This paper thus aims to serve as a starting point
for the development of theories and research methodologies that facilitate
meaningful dialogue between Chinese and Western tourism researchers, and
that contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the discipline as a whole.

Correspondence
Any correspondence should be directed to Peiyi Ding, The University of
Queensland, Australia (p.ding@uq.edu.au).

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