More than just viewing flowers from horseback: Chinese sightseers in the 1950s and 1960s

Mass-market tourism expanded in the capitalist world in Western Europe and the Americas  just after World War II. But less well known is the growth in international tourism in the socialist world in Eastern Europe and Asia during the same period. Tourists from the People’s Republic of China ventured out into the socialist world in small numbers, but their participation in this form of internationalism had important implications for the nation’s political and economic role in the world during the 1950s and 1960s.

By 1956, the China International Travel Service (CITS) began organising outbound tours to send small groups of Chinese travellers to Eastern Europe and other countries in Asia. This tourism program contributed to a vision of a distinctly socialist modernity in China, which occurred alongside other cultural products, such as works of literature and film, that circulated internationally. At the time, tourism formed a small part of China’s trade account in the socialist world economy.

The sightseers and the audience

The Chinese sightseers on these tours included a mix of labour models and cadres, who travelled abroad at public expense as a reward for their service to the state. On these tours were also smaller numbers of intellectuals, overseas returnees, and businesspeople, who the CITS expected would pay their own way. This mix of travellers — both publicly funded and privately financed — played an important role in the political and economic goals of this tour program.

Unlike cultural and athletic delegations sent abroad for performances and competitions or study groups sent for longer periods to acquire specialised knowledge and skills, these outbound travellers spent most of their time abroad “on tour,” guided from city to city in what was for them often a brief, one-time experience. However, it was only a fortunate few who could directly experience socialist internationalism through such a trip abroad.

For most people at this time, knowledge of the socialist world and its vision of modernity was instead mediated by exhibitions and films that could take them on an imaginary journey to the world beyond China’s borders. The outbound tours organized by the CITS played a small but important role in this larger cultural program introducing socialist modernity to Chinese society. These tours, like socialist cinema, mediated a vision of progress that transcended national boundaries.

Even while the direct reach of these tours was limited to a small group of travellers, the experience of these tourists served as evidence that what others saw only on the screen or in exhibition halls may really exist out there. Some of these tourists presented their travel experiences to audiences throughout China. One doctor from Guangzhou, for example, gave lectures to more than 3,000 people about what he had seen abroad after returning from a CITS tour in 1957.

The significance of these tours, ultimately, must not be understated because of their small scale.

The economic goals of tourism

With agricultural and industrial production paramount and all consumption subject to intense Party scrutiny during China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), the CITS itself criticized taking short tours through multiple countries as little more than “viewing flowers from horseback,” leaving only superficial impressions.

Against this backdrop, the CITS asserted the importance of this program to broader national goals, while working to minimize the foreign currency outlays necessary to maintain it. They did so by recruiting more self-financed travellers and by strictly rationing the amount of money each traveller could convert and spend abroad.

There was a more pragmatic aspect to this program: a minimal level of outbound tourism was necessary to maintain a steady flow of inbound tourism. Although shared ideology was the glue that held the socialist world economy together through the late 1950s, the nations of the socialist world traded tourism just as they would any physical commodity, and the CITS was eager to maintain a positive trade balance.

Soviet trade representatives in China repeatedly expressed their frustration with the unwillingness of the CITS to expand its outbound tourism. They reported in 1959 that for every tourist the CITS sent to the Soviet Union, their country sent 17 tourists to China. The Soviets thus requested that the CITS raise the number of Chinese tourists they would send to the Soviet Union that year from 300 to 1,000.

In response, CITS officials reported to China’s State Council that maintaining the number at 300 in the face of persistent Soviet demands might harm trade relations. The CITS requested permission to raise the number of tourists it would send that year to 420. After receiving notice from the CITS that it had to organize an additional tour group to satisfy Soviet demands, the Shanghai municipal government sought to minimize its financial burden by allocating half of the spots in this group to self-financed travellers.

A new era

CITS’ outbound tourism program was greatly diminished by China’s split with the Soviet Union in 1960. It came to a complete halt with the start of the Cultural Revolution in May 1966.

For the next few decades, outbound tourism from China was a limited affair, with Chinese citizens first granted rights to travel to Hong Kong in 1983, and then to Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia on CITS-organised tours starting from 1991. By 2012, however, China had become the world’s largest source nation for outbound tourists.

The China of these 21st-century tourists is vastly different from the China inhabited by the CITS-organised sightseers of the 1950s and 1960s, as is the world in which they travel. But a deeper understanding of China’s international tourism during the Cold War may help us to reflect more deeply on the political and economic implications of China’s role in the global tourism marketplace today.

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