In Tour of Australia, Chinese Admire Clean Air but Bemoan Lack of Hot Drinking Water

CANBERRA, Australia — The Chinese tourists found Parliament House, one of Australia’s most enduring national symbols, well . . . underwhelming.

“County-level governments in China have fancier buildings. Am I right?” said Jimmy Zhao, a Shanghai-born tour guide, who last month led a group of 55 tourists mostly from China, but also Malaysia and Singapore, on a four-day bus tour of Australia’s East Coast.

The group giggled and agreed with Mr. Zhao’s assessment, but they were also impressed that, unlike in China, anyone could walk into the heart of Australia’s government. When Mr. Zhao, 53, pointed out a bathroom used by a former prime minister, one tourist sprinted off to experience the V.I.P. urinal.

“Today we are all senators!” shouted another Chinese visitor.

Tensions between Australia and China are at an all-time high — spurred, in part, by accusations of Chinese meddling in Australian politics — but the rate of Chinese tourists visiting Australia is surging. The country hosted 1.3 million Chinese tourists in the year ending September 2018, more than the population of Australia’s fifth-biggest city, Adelaide.

And they spent a lot of money. Chinese visitors pumped 11.5 billion Australian dollars, or $8.1 billion, into the economy in the same period, accounting for more than a quarter of spending by international visitors, according to government statistics.

Australians are greeting the travelers with signs, menus and brochures translated into Chinese — but also a degree of confusion, skepticism and sometimes racism.

We spent four days traveling with a group of tourists, and spoke to others along the way. Many of the visitors had connections to Australia, including relatives who had moved there for work or school. Others were here for the clean air, warm weather and wildlife or to tick off seeing the Sydney Opera House from their bucket list. (The group visited seven different locations to snap photos of the Opera House and nearby Harbour Bridge.)

Ten years ago, mainland tourists were either very rich or government officials, said Mr. Zhao, the tour guide.

Nowadays, visitors reflect China’s nascent middle class. Many of the visitors — newly rich but bound by tradition — are recent retirees, who sometimes find it difficult to accept a foreign country’s cultural mores.

Each stop on the tour gave the Chinese a chance to try new foods and interact with local people. But some stops were fraught with cultural misunderstandings.

At Parliament House in Canberra, where the trip began, the cultural divide was especially visible.

Mr. Zhao tried to deliver a lengthy talk about politics as the visitors sat in the gallery of the House of Representatives. Around him, children ran around screaming, while women in large, colorful hats appeared interested mostly in taking countless selfies.

Twice during Mr. Zhao’s speech, a Parliament security guard asked him and the group to keep their voices down. Twice they ignored him. Later they wondered if the guard would have similarly reprimanded a group of Western tourists.

“Big Uncle Xi was invited here to give a speech four years ago,” Mr. Zhao said, using a nickname for President Xi Jinping of China. “That was historic and proved that China is now more developed and valued.”

At other times, cultural differences also created difficulties when it came to eating — or more precisely, drinking.

Chinese regularly drink hot water. But Australians, particularly at the height of summer, prefer it iced.

In the Gold Coast, a 77-year-old grandmother said she had not taken her medication all day because she could not find warm water. Another woman complained that a cafe would not give her hot water with which she could cook her own instant noodles.

“I can’t stand Western food, so I brought my own,” she griped. “Why can’t you just give me some water?”

Elsewhere, Australians were more accommodating. At a sheepshearing show at Paradise Country, a farm-themed park in the northeastern state of Queensland, a Mandarin interpreter sat with the visitors and translated a series of heavily accented Australian farm jokes.

In another part of the park, a Mandarin-speaking photographer took pictures of tourists cuddling a koala bear.

But the group was also confronted by Australians who did not want them there, or who wanted to use the group’s distance from Chinese government censors to deliver a barbed political message.

At one point during the trip, a young white man was spotted wearing a T-shirt that read, in black Chinese characters, “I hate Chinese people,” though it was unclear if the man even knew what his shirt said.

Outside several tourist attractions, the group encountered members of Falun Gong, a religious practice outlawed in China. The movement’s members intentionally staked out areas they knew would be visited by Chinese tourists and said they were there to tell “the truth about the Communist Party.”

“None of us wish to speak to them,” said Runjuan Lu, 54. “We have a good life now. We have our pension. Without the Communist Party, we won’t have this life.”