Read our articles and stay in touch
Giethoorn, a remote village in the Dutch polder landscape, 'the Venice of the North'. In this tiny village all the houses are lined up along the canal and the preferred method of transport is punting.
There has always been tourism to Giethoorn - I remember wandering around in Giethoorn and see all the boats pass by. But this last year something has changed: thousands of Chinese tourists have 'discovered' Giethoorn and started visiting the picturesque town.
Dutch documentary makers Ilja Kok and Willem Timmers made a beautiful, highly acclaimed documentary on this phenomenon, by zooming in on the Chinese tourists as well as the locals. We follow Cherry from Beijing who has been wanting to visit Giethoorn for quite some time, taking pictures, taking boat rides and eating Dutch pea soup in the morning - a typical afternoon dish. We see locals taking Chinese classes, serving Dutch pea soup in the morning and putting sign boards in Chinese in their garden. As a local hotelier says: the setting of Giethoorn plays a major role and the tourists love it. The combination with personal attention makes it unique, and of course they love "good food". And: "When you become even more hospitable, you can catch and keep even more."
In a (Dutch) book I co-authored entitled 'Look, the tourists of tomorrow' on tourists from Brazil, Russia, India and China - the so called BRIC countries -, author Esmee Visser and myself stated that this is exactly the point: in order not to miss the boat of economic opportunities for receiving tourist of the upcoming markets, you should try to understand the cross-cultural habits of these guests. We need to get into their minds, the way they think and the way they view the world. How do they address people? What food habits do they have, how do they shop, take a bath, sleep, take photo's? But also on a deeper level, beyond the do's and don'ts: many of them come from a very hierarchical society, and this might have consequences for their interaction with guides, hoteliers and locals. Indians, for example, might simply put their suitcase down and expect us to put it in the bus or room for them. That is exactly how it is done back home.
Obviously interactions between cultures are not always smooth sailing. In the documentary we see Chinese women opening a fence and entering private property. They stare through the window and admire the cupboard. A man comes out, saying in a irritated voice: "Ladies, this is private property. You need to stay on the public road".
There are two things to say about this. First, indeed Chinese tourists should become more aware of cultural 'do's and don'ts' when they visit other countries, and preferably gain even more in-depth knowledge of the cultures they visit. Fair enough, this might be easier for a Dutch person who - coming from such a small country - is so used to being abroad and understands that there are cultural differences.
Second, looking at these cultural insensitivities is like a mirror to all of us. Dutch, British and other European citizens have also been called 'insensitive', 'arrogant', 'misbehaving' while being abroad. I remember the beaches of India with the topless western sunbathing women - buses of Indian male 'tourists' would come over to visit and watch. Apart from tourism, Europe has not been very sensitive to dealing with remote cultures - colonialism has shown many examples. So let us use the arrival of the Chinese tourists as our own moment of reflection. And let us learn about interculturality to truly learn about - and learn from - the Chinese and others.
Brigitte Ars, Innoguide project partner, coordinator of the Interculturality module, lecturer at NHTV (The Netherlands) and author.BACK