According to Dr Wei-Jue Huang, Professor Brian King, and Dr Wantanee Suntikul of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management (SHTM) at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, there are some important differences to consider when migrants return to their ancestral countries as tourists, especially when we’re talking about second or third-generation migrants who might not be so familiar with their “original” cultures. Studies involving Chinese Americans show that when they visit China they tend not to seek out the exotic attractions that might be of interest to regular American tourists, but instead they look for experiences that help them to connect with their families and their ethnic or cultural identity.

In the past, opportunities to visit the homeland might have come along once in a lifetime, but today such visits are commonplace, with the most common motivation being the desire to visit friends and family. These tourists are therefore quite different to normal tourists as they tend not to make the same distinctions between their home and their destination Their perception of the destination may be quite different as a result of this tendency not to feel so detached from the destination.

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University study* interviewed 26 second-generation Chinese-Americans aged between 19 and 28 who had visited China to find out more about the way they perceived China as a destination, the extent to which it lived up to their expectations, and what they liked and disliked about the country.

A large majority of the study participants had relatives in China and were therefore traveling in order to spend time with their families. However, they would also commonly choose to visit Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong for sightseeing, as well as the home towns of their parents. Language learning was another frequently cited reason to visit China.

For likes and dislikes, the consensus was similar to that of regular tourists. Food, scenery, shopping, and low prices were all mentioned as positives, while the humidity, poor sanitation, scams, and crazy driving were listed as problems. One difference, however, was that these second-generation migrant tourists were more likely to find reasons to explain or justify the negative aspects of China. Possibly as a consequence of their family connections, many felt an obligation to defend China and were reluctant to be too critical. For example, they pointed out that the high population density created a feeling of security rather than of overcrowding, and argued that the lack of democracy might only be a problem from an American perspective.

The activities most enjoyed by these visitors included those typical of local daily life such as fishing, visiting tea houses or local markets, going to the temple, and spending time with their local relatives. However, some encountered language difficulties, especially with unfamiliar local dialects, which caused them to experience a feeling of partial exclusion.

Perceptions of a destination before visiting often have a significant influence in shaping the final verdict. For regular tourists, this initial expectation is often shaped by the media, with movies or TV making a significant impression. However, the second-generation migrant tourists reported that their opinions had initially been formed from the information they received from friends and family, as well as from the study of China in school. One problem is that the pictures of China their parents painted were often colored by their parents’ negative experiences which had originally compelled them to leave the country. This in turn meant that when the study participants finally traveled to China, it was rarely as bad as they’d expected

The most significant points to consider are that visiting family and friends is perhaps the single largest sector of the tourism market, and it is clear that when people travel to see relatives, a foreign country is no longer exotic and challenging, but instead becomes more familiar. When people feel a strong connection to the destination country, as these second-generation migrant tourists clearly do, it becomes harder for them to separate themselves from the local culture, and their perceptions of the destination are no longer those of an outsider as would be the case for a regular tourist.

*Huang, W-J, King, B. and Suntikul, W. (2017). VFR Tourism and the Tourist Gaze: Overseas Migrant Perceptions of Home. International Journal of Tourism Research, 19(4), 421-434.