Covid Halted Much of Chinese New Year Travels

The Lantern Festival is a Chinese festival celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar. Usually falling in February or early March on the Gregorian calendar, it marks the final day of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations.

The 2021 Lantern Festival was February 26. After 15 days of holiday time, Chinese were ready to get back to work. Millions of migrant workers finally returned to their work places, some arriving at the latest last weekend. Schools opened March 1. Luzhou Vocational and Technical College was no exception. I’ve already heard the first weeks of school are going very well, with no quarantine necessary but a Covid test was required for everyone coming back from their holiday travels. Virus cases are virtually nil in China. To make sure the no-Covid climate remained throughout the Chinese New Year, the government put strict rules in place to dissuade citizens from traveling. It certainly worked. A majority stayed at home, not even visiting relatives in nearby cities. Tourist travel to scenic spots was lower than usual and overseas travel was basically completely restricted.

Touring in China

When I first taught in China in 1991, more and more middle class adults, with fairly steady incomes, were participating in the newly created tourism industry for the Chinese. Before then, it had mostly been foreigners and the very wealthy Chinese who traveled extensively on such tours. They often endured what were considered primitive conditions: hotels with minimal heat or air-conditioning, ratty rooms, squat toilets or no toilets at all at tourist destinations, unsanitary meals which caused stomach problems, no facilities for physically challenged individuals and uncomfortable travel conditions.

But in today’s China, for both locals and foreigners, 5 Star service by touring companies is expected and (for the most part) never an issue. Tourists are treated like kings and queens, with tour guides bending over backwards to make everyone’s experience special and unique.

Spring Festival (i.e., Chinese New Year), with millions on vacation, has become China’s tourism industry’s greatest money-maker. At least, it has in the past. Yet for the past 2 Spring Festivals, Covid has dampened people’s desire, ability, and carefree spirit to spend their money traveling.

A Tourguide’s Lament

Jason, shown here near his family’s home, in his beginning years as a tour guide

My former student, Jason, who is a tour guide for both foreigners and the Chinese, has lost his job.

His speciality trips were taking large groups of Chinese to Sri Lanka and Bali. He also led private 2 to 3-day tours for Americans, Brits and others to the Chengdu’s outer-lying world- renowned sites. (Chengdu, where Jason lives, is the capital city of Sichuan.) Due to his excellent English skills and ability to adapt to, organize and coddle his diverse clientele, Jason was a highly popular tour guide among numerous touring agencies. He’d be called at the last minute and farmed out to lead different tour groups which needed a fairly fluent English speaker.

That was Jason.

He even toured me to Dujiangyan, a city famous for the first ancient irrigation system built in the world. Here we are on that visit, in 2008.

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But a text message from Jason, received last week, revealed his current frustration. Like me, he is stuck in a situation where Covid has turned his world upside down. Without the trips to Sri Lanka and Bali, and without the foreigner tourists in country, he’s been out of a job. His tourism company has scaled back to only a few called in for in-country tours. Being the main breadwinner for his family (farming parents, unemployed sister and her husband plus the couple’s daughter), there has been a desperate need for an income.

Jason, the main breadwinner of the family, is shown here with his mom, sister, sister’s friend and father.

Jason’s Tourguide Wisdom Makes Him a Marketable Employee

From Jason’s past stories, I could tell he was an excellent tour guide. His ability to deal with various situations, and numerous personalities, surely would serve him well in any employment, especially one dealing with the public.

How do I know this? Because of all Jason’s tourguide stories which he’d shared with me over the years.

Here are a few.

Dealing with the Culturally Insensitive

Jason’s early experiences as a tour guide were quite challenging, one being the Sri Lankan tour he led for the first time. One of the older women, traveling with her daughter, had nothing but complaints: The food was terrible. (At every meal: “I want Sichuan laojiao (spicy pepper) sauce. How can they not have that?!”). The items were too expensive (She would bargain with great disdain, trying to get rock-bottom prices from the poorest Sri Lankan roadside seller and would often accuse the person of cheating her when actually, it was a reasonable ask. She’d haughtily walk away after a long altercation, not purchasing anything at all. ) The hotel rooms always had something amiss: the floor wasn’t clean, the bedding was sparse, the toilet was a Western style (she wanted the Asian squat toilet), service was slow. (These were top-notch, 5-star hotels that catered to tour groups and whose rooms were quite impressive and nothing to sneer at.) She’d argue with Jason about what was next on the featured daily agenda, saying she was tired and wanted to go back to the hotel. (Impossible to do without everyone else having to go along as well.)

Jason, at every disdainful remark, politely responded with patience and kindness. But it all came to a head on the tourbus when the woman went too far in one of her harping comments, aimed directly at Jason. Others on the bus came to his defense after he pointed out to the woman that her words were insensitive, he’d been doing his best to introduce her to this new culture and yet, she refused to be open to new experiences but was making her Chinese race look bad.

The daughter backed him up, chastising her mom for her behavior.

There was dead silence on the bus as the woman sat fuming. However, that did keep her somewhat in check for the rest of the tour.

Jason later told me he had several take-aways from this experience as a novice tour guide. First was to prepare Chinese beforehand for a new experience, reminding them how they might appear to those of another culture if they act rather arrogantly or without tolerance. Another was not to wait too long to call attention to bad behavior from one in his touring group. Do so in a quiet, polite, understanding way but be sure to nip it in the bud before it ruins the tour for everyone and aggravates them to the point of attacking the ill-behaved person. And, lastly, bring several jars of Sichuan laojiao sauce (or know where it can be purchased in Sri Lanka) to pass around at the dinner table. Even the most well-traveled, tolerant, adaptable Chinese have an issue with what they consider bland food. A happy stomach makes a happy tourist. Jason commented that bringing what appears to be an inconsequential item, in this case being a hot pepper condiment, actually was what could make or break a tour to a foreign country for his fellow Sichuanese.

Beware International Airports: The Call of the Sirens

Another lesson learned during his novice days of overseas tourism had to deal with the enticement of airports.

On his first guided tour to Bali, the airline routed them through Hong Kong. Instead of a direct flight from Chengdu to Bali, they were to change planes at Hong Kong’s International Airport before going onward to the island nation. Little did Jason know that walking a tour group through a prestigious airport, passing shop after shop of dazzlingly displayed international products not readily available on the China Mainland, could become a danger zone. Despite his reminder to stay together, follow his waving bright red tourism flag and don’t stray from the main thoroughfare, he began to lose members as they slipped away “just for second” to buy that special something for Granny Wu or Mother Ji or Uncle Li. By the time he confidently hustled everyone to the boarding area and began his head-count, he realized there were 4 missing. He had no idea where they’d gone off to. In a panic, after having the 4 paged on the loudspeaker, he left the others in the waiting area while he back-tracked to find the ones that had gone missing.

When he did find them, they were still standing in line to purchase their goods. He was lucky they had stayed together to support one another or he’d have really been in a bind.

Jason hurried them along, hustling them onward and getting them on the plane with just a few minutes to spare before take-off.

Since then, Jason is quick to sternly warn his tour members that if they wander from the pack while walking through any airport, he is not responsible for finding them. If they miss the flight, they’re on their own, end of story.

In my words: You follow the Call of the Siren (in this above case the irresistible Siren being the HK airport’s international merchandise), you suffer the consequences.

Jason’s Current Situation

I’m sure Jason is eager to return to his former life, much as I am. Here is our most recent WeChat messaging below:

Jason: I hope the world will be back to normal soon. It has already caused great damage. I lost my job as a guide and now I find another job. It’s kind of Internet technology. My job is the promotion of an App.

Connie: Some of my students did that for a part-time job in the summer. Not as fun as touring.

Jason: That’s true. And less income. But, well, that’s the best situation I can have now. As long as I can survive, there is always hope.

Ah, words of wisdom, Jason. Words of wisdom.

From small town Marshall, Illinois, here’s wishing you 平安 (Ping An, Peace) for your weekend.

About connieinchina

I have been in the Asia region for 30 years as an English language teacher. 28 of those have been spent with the Amity Foundation, a Chinese NGO that works in all areas of development for the Chinese people. Amity teachers are placed at small colleges throughout China as instructors of English language majors in the education field. In other words, my students will one day be English teachers themselves in their small villages or towns once they graduate. Currently, this is my 13th year in Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. The college is located in Luzhou city (loo-joe), Sichuan Province, a metropolis of 5 million people located next to the Yangtze River .
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