Categorized | Destinations

Chinese travelers are seeing the USA in record numbers…

Posted on 31 January 2012

The Chinese are coming. And the U.S. travel industry couldn’t be happier.


Eager to spend their growing disposable income, travelers from mainland China’s wealthy and rising middle classes are traversing the globe in search of iconic destinations they can cross off their bucket lists.


That wanderlust has increasingly brought them to a dream destination, the USA, in recent years as travel restrictions on them eased. Despite occasional economic and political dust-ups between the two nations’ governments, a record number of Chinese visitors came to the U.S. in 2011.


Steps announced last month by President Obama to speed up visas for them should result in even more Chinese arrivals, further unlocking a huge source of income that the U.S. travel industry and retail business sector have long coveted.


So huge is the Chinese travel market potential that major U.S. travel suppliers — including hotels and airlines, as well as major cities and even shopping malls — are sending sales representatives to China. They’re educating tour operators in Chinese cities that few Americans have heard of. And hotels in this country are now serving rice porridge for breakfast and seeking Mandarin Chinese speakers to handle the phones and check-in desks.


“It’s astonishing,” says Fred Dixon, NYC & Company’s senior vice president of tourism & convention development. “It’s one of the powerhouse markets.”


Indicative of the growth and potential: In the first 10 months of 2011, visits from mainland Chinese rose 36% year-over-year to 940,000, according to the International Trade Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce.


Chinese visitors’ spending in the U.S. shot up 39% in 2010 to $5 billion, a growth rate that outpaced visitors from all other countries who have been traditionally high spenders here. That spending put the Chinese in seventh place among foreign visitors, overtaking France.


“U.S. travel and tourism exports to China have increased by at least 30% in six of the last seven years,” the trade administration’s 2010 report says. “U.S. travel and tourism exports account for 24% of all U.S. services exports to China.”


But the current visitation figures matter less in the eyes of travel marketers than the sheer potential the Chinese market promises.


About 70 million Chinese crossed their border in 2011, spending $69 billion, according to China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, a Germany-based research firm. And they’ve just begun.

Tourism boon


Budget-minded tour groups


Chinese travelers, mostly wealthy individuals or business travelers, have been coming to the U.S. in dribs and drabs for years. The floodgate didn’t open until 2007, when China gave the U.S. its “approved destination” status, a change that allows the U.S. to market in the country. It also fueled a boom in Chinese group tour agencies that corral price-sensitive travelers leaving the country for the first time.


Their travel dynamic hasn’t changed much, says David Huang of China Host, a travel agency. He estimates about 90% of Chinese visitors still travel in large groups, moving quickly from destination to destination while staying at budget hotels.


But with the duration of their stays longer than those of Europeans and their penchant for shopping, the power of their wallets has surprised many in the industry.


In New York, Chinese spent on average $3,197 per person in 2010, the highest among foreign travel groups. “They’re sort of the new Japanese,” Dixon says.


Qiang Wang, a Chinese traveler recently strolling the massive grounds of an outlet mall in Leesburg, Va., near Washington, D.C., says the Chinese love good bargains, and shopping excursions are frequent in group tours.


Wang, an economist from Hefei, a city in Anhui Province in eastern China, laughs at the irony of Chinese travelers rushing to buy goods in the USA that were likely shipped from their country.


“Brand (goods) are a lot cheaper here,” he says, holding up bags from Coach, Jos. A. Bank and Easy Spirit.


Getting a visa can be a problem


Despite the growing numbers, the U.S. tourism industry isn’t taking the Chinese for granted. While the U.S. remains, for many Chinese, a mythic destination glimpsed only in Hollywood movies, they’re also increasingly proving to be discriminating customers who want to spend money where they’re welcome.


Because of its reputation as a difficult country to obtain a visa to, the U.S. is starting to lose some of its luster, particularly among the young, adventurous and upscale segment of Chinese travelers.


Based on a series of surveys he conducted in Shanghai in 2010- 2011, Robert Li, a tourism professor at the University of South Carolina, says Shanghai travelers selected France as the most desired destination. The U.S. came in second.


European countries had been granted the “approved destination” status earlier, and have marketed in China sooner than the U.S. did. “The U.S. has lost the first-mover advantage,” he says.


Now free to move about the world, the Chinese elite, in particular, are selecting destinations not on preconceived notions of the past, but purely based on cost, accessibility and product.


“The Chinese still would like to go to the U.S., but it’s no longer the only option that comes to their minds,” Wang, the traveler, says. “Back when they couldn’t travel, the U.S. may have had more allure.”


The travel industry received much-sought help from the government when President Obama ordered the State and Homeland Security departments to boost the capacity for issuing visas in China 40% this year. He said he wanted to ensure that 80% of non-immigrant visa applicants from foreign countries are interviewed within three weeks by U.S. consular staffs.


Delays in getting visas have been a frequent complaint among Chinese travelers and travel executives. Chinese are still required to have a face-to-face interview with an embassy official. And with only five consular offices in China, applicants in secondary and tertiary cities — an increasingly important group — must travel overnight for an interview.


“They’re social elites, and they have to change their busy schedules,” Li says. “And they do interviews, not knowing whether they get the visa. That’s a deterrent.”


At a recent technology conference, Ted Zhang, CEO of Derbysoft, a China-based software firm, bemoaned the slow U.S. visa processing in China. Several employees couldn’t come to the conference, he said, because they weren’t approved or couldn’t apply in time.


Zhang, a U.S. passport holder, says he wishes he could delegate more trips to his employees. But an appointment with a U.S. embassy official can take up to a month. It’s often easier for him to travel even for meetings that could be handled by an engineer. “I don’t have to take one-third of the trips that I now take,” he says. “But compared to a year ago, it’s gotten a lot better.”


Hotels add noodles, tea kettles


The hospitality industry, particularly large hotels, has responded aggressively.


Marriott has 20 sales reps deployed throughout China, says Mike Stengel, market vice president for New York City Marriott Hotels.


After opening its international sales office in China in 2005, Hilton San Francisco Union Square has its U.S. reps visit China twice a year to meet with corporate travel planners, says Michael Dunne, the hotel’s general manager.


New York City was one of the first cities to open a regional tourism office in Shanghai in 2007. The investment “had a payoff in a big way,” Dixon says. The number of visitors to the city grew 44% in 2010 to 229,000. They’re staying longer, too, with the average duration rising to 11.3 nights vs. 7.4 in 2009.


Hotels look for any edge to gain more of their business.


Starwood, which owns the Sheraton, Westin and W brands, began offering some Chinese amenities and services — in-room tea kettles, slippers, translated restaurant menus and welcome brochures, on-site translation services and comfort food such as congee (rice porridge) and noodles — at some its hotels in gateway cities such as New York and Hawaii. Starwood plans to introduce the services at all its properties by the end of this year.


Hilton started a Chinese-guest program last year with 30 hotels in major cities worldwide, and has expanded it to 63 hotels. Its services include Chinese meals, hiring Chinese speakers and displaying oranges and tangerines in lobbies, symbols of wealth and good luck.


Stengel of the Marriott Marquis says employees are being reminded of the Asian way of presenting business cards and are taught to say “Hello, thank you” in Mandarin.


Marriott Marquis eliminated the room numbers of the suites on the 44th floor, giving them names, instead. Four is considered a bad luck number in Asian cultures. Room 4444 is called Imperial Suite.


Marquis employees are also quick to point out to Chinese guests that its lobby is on the eighth floor, considered a lucky number. “We want as many eights as possible in the hotel,” Stengel says. “We teach our people that this is not funny.”


The retail sector has been working with tour operators, too, to make shops a must-see destination. High-end retailers such as Tiffany are now looking to hire more Mandarin speakers at many key stores. Tourneau, a high-end watch retailer, went along with New York City tourism officials last year on marketing trips.


While there’s no shortage of shopping centers in China, large outlet malls in the U.S., with their lower prices, have become popular destinations, travel executives says.


“Most luxury brand stores in China are more expensive than the U.S.,” says Danny Lin, owner, Amerilink International, a travel agency and hotel supplier. “You’re talking double the price. They think they can cover their trip with one luxury good. If you purchase a couple of big items, you may cover the trip.”


The Premium Outlets, which operates 70 malls, says it courted the Chinese early, sending reps annually to China to update tour operators on store changes, says Michele Rothstein, Premium’s senior vice president of marketing.


Some stores at the malls with high number of Chinese visitors, such as in New York and Los Angeles, continue to hire Chinese speakers and keep charts in Chinese sizes.


And buses keep coming to its malls. At its mall in Leesburg, Va., the number of bus tour visits has more than doubled in 2011. In New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, tour group visits rose more than 50%.


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