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Asian Tour Groups: The Antithesis of Backpacking

2011 June 21
Asian tour groups

Asian tour groups... in Asia (Xi'an, China). Save yourself while you still can.

You’re walking down the street when, suddenly, a big bus pulls up next to you. A man carrying a little flag and a speaker phone bounds out followed by a horde of people. They’re all excitedly looking around and snapping photos with cameras both large and small. Before you can even process what just happened, the group of people has already hurried past you.

Congratulations, you just encountered an Asian tour group. Many of you have seen them, not many of you have been on one. For better or for worse, I’ve experienced both.

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As Asian countries have gotten wealthier, many tour groups catered towards Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and other nationalities have sprung up. Whether it be Europe, Africa or the Americas, you’re bound to see them in any major tourist area. There’s a certain stereotype attached to these tour groups and like they say, there is always some truth behind a stereotype.

When I think of backpacking, I think of the open road, a dash of spontaneity, a lot of uncertainty, and endless freedom. Asian tour groups, on the other hand, are pretty much the exact opposite.

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Imagine having every minute of every day, planned out, plotted and timed. You usually start out really early (god forbid you drank the night before), have breakfast and load up on the bus. It may look like an ordinary bus but it’s far from it. That bus is the lifeline of any Asian tour group. It’s like a magic teleporter: you fall asleep in one place, wake up in another. You’ll be spending so much time on the bus that it’ll literally be like a second hotel and by the end, your seat will have ass grooves.

Once aboard the bus, a blur of sights awaits. The goal of an Asian tour group is to seemingly pack as many sights in as little time as humanly possible. At each stop, you are given a set amount of time and guided by either a local guide or the tour’s guide. Like a herd of sheep, you are led around to see the main highlights and given enough time to snap a few photos here and there. Next thing you know, you’ve checked it off the list of sights back on the bus you go.

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The warp speed sightseeing continues until you are led to a store in the middle of nowhere. One thing that Asian tour groups do well is that they are incredibly cheap. If you were to book the lodging, transportation and tickets independently, it’d probably cost more. The tour company is probably breaking even or even losing money on this segment of business. So how do they keep the lights on? By bringing tour groups to arranged stores. The tour company gets a commission and the store gets a bunch of guaranteed foot traffic. Win-win for both companies. Unfortunately for you, as the tourist, you’re getting the raw end of the stick. Instead of spending time actually enjoying the sights, you’re stuck in some jade, silk or tea shop (usually selling bullshit, marked up goods) resisting all sales attempts by pushy salespeople.

God forbid there’s one person who actually wants to buy something because then the whole group is fucked. It’s in the tour guide and company’s best interest to have people buy from these shops. Since none of the prices are usually marked, there’s often a long drawn out haggling process between the buyer and the store. As such, the entire group will be sitting there waiting for that one person to either buy/not buy so. Sometimes it’s really funny to see the entire tour group unite and complain, most of the time it’s just goddamn annoying. There’s been a few times where I actually spent more time in stores than at actual attractions. Awesome.

The tour goes on for the rest of the day and by the time you get back to your hotel, you’ll have seen a number of sights and gone to a couple of stores. It’s an exhausting experience and one that will repeat itself the next day.

So what do you get in the end? A list of checked-off sights, maybe a couple of jade necklaces or some “exotic” tea, a shallow understanding of a place/culture and a numb ass.

Very unfulfilling, at least for me.

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But I have to give credit where credit is due as Asian tour groups do have their merits. I’ve already mentioned that they’re cheap, dirt cheap. They are also hassle free: after signing up, all you really have to do is wake up on time because everything else is already planned. So yes, it’s not all bad and makes sense for some people.

But for me? PASS.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. June 22, 2011

    I am also not a huge fan of tour groups. I was in a group for the journey (return) from Cusco to Machu Picchu and it was brutal. We never stopped at any designated shops but we definitely spent a lot of unnecessary time in restaurants.

    Like you said there are still good points to tour groups. One of my professors did fieldwork at Banff National Park and all of the park rangers said that they liked the Asian tour groups because they came, took their pictures and left, whereas backpackers get all adventurous and get lost.

    • Paul permalink*
      June 22, 2011

      Hahah that’s pretty hilarious about the National Park rangers. Suppose it’s great for them.

      And as much as I dislike going on them now, it was an Asian tour of Europe I went on as kid that really sparked my interest in traveling.

  2. Sabu permalink
    July 4, 2011

    I lived in China 15 years ago and last visited it six years ago. The increase in domestic tourism, which was hardly small scale 15 years ago, has absolutely gone mad.

    It’s fair to say the whole tour group thing with little flags and caps almost wrecked a few sights for me.

    Not that I’m saying tour groups shouldn’t happen, or that they’re bad. Just that the volume of people and the megaphone noise was hard to deal with. Yes, even in China.

    • Paul permalink*
      July 5, 2011

      Absolutely. It’s a complete madhouse at some of the tourist attractions. Xi’an was definitely some of the worst I’ve seen.

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