by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | January 12, 2018

Cheryl-Anne SturkenA geographical blunder in an online Mandarin-language guest questionnaire brought the full wrath of the Chinese government down on Marriott International this week and resulted in the global hotel company issuing a formal apology for its gaffe.

Authorities in Shanghai earlier this week closed down Marriott International's official Chinese website and mobile app for a week as punishment for listing Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Macau as separate countries, rather than regions of China, saying it violated cybersecurity and advertising laws. The National Tourism Administration of China issued an official statement urging the Shanghai Tourism Bureau to conduct an investigation as soon as possible. It also asked all local tourism bureaus to check the hotel company's online websites in order to prevent another incident.

Arne Sorenson, president and chief executive officer of Marriott International, issued a formal apology on Marriott's website less than 24 hours later for the company's misstep, which drew accusations of disrespecting Chinese sovereignty and calls for a boycott of the company's hotels by angry Chinese on Weibo, China's version of Twitter. Many users said they had cancelled bookings. Marriott also issued an apology on Weibo.

"Marriott International respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. Unfortunately, twice this week, we had incidents that suggested the opposite: First, by incorrectly labelling certain regions within China, including Tibet, as countries in a drop-down menu on a survey we sent out to our loyalty members; and second, in the careless "like" by an associate of a tweet that incorrectly suggested our support of this position. Nothing could be further from the truth: We don't support anyone who subverts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, and we do not intend in any way to encourage or incite any such people or groups. We recognize the severity of the situation and sincerely apologize," read the statement.

The error, however, is a common one, particularly for foreigners, who are not aware of China's political sensitivity. Tibet is officially an "autonomous region" but under Chinese control. Hong Kong and Macau were British and Portuguese territories, respectively, but are now "special administrative regions of the People's Republic of China." The island of Taiwan has been self-ruled since 1949, but China continues to maintain its claim of sovereignty.

China is a major market for Marriott International. Several months ago at the International Luxury Travel Market conference held in Shanghai, the company unveiled plans to double its luxury presence in the Asia Pacific region by adding more than 100 luxury hotels, with China to gain the lion's share of its growth, naming key cities such as Shanghai and Suzhou as flagged for new properties."