After years of relatively minor interest (and in some cases no interest at all!), Hawaii, California and Las Vegas are among American tourist destinations vying fiercely for a vast and largely untapped new market segment. Yes, to be a Chinese tourist these days is to be a widely-sought traveler.
Hawaii has beaches and its famed “aloha spirit” as its siren call. Las Vegas offers gambling and its entertainment-oriented attractions. San Francisco can boast high-end shopping and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Beset by one of the worst recessions in decades, the U.S. destinations are spending significant sums on marketing campaigns in China’s most populous regions, and are urging U.S. embassy officials and Chinese airlines to ease the logistical burdens of flying to the United States.
The payoff could be substantial – particularly in Hawaii, the closest U.S. destination to China but which is, at least for now, harder for the Chinese to reach by air.
Attracting more Chinese tourists “will bring back a lot of jobs” to Hawaii, Gov. Linda Lingle said recently, after returning from a tourism and economic mission to China.
About a half-million Chinese traveled to all U.S. destinations last year, and that number is expected to grow by double digits in each of the next four years mainly because of China’s growing economy and new wealth, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Tourism officials note that the Chinese middle and upper classes each rivals the size of the entire U.S. population, so luring just a fraction would produce huge numbers.
“Everybody looks at China and sees a country with 1.3 billion people and a growing economy, and they say, ‘Oh my God, it’s the greatest travel market that ever was,’” said Professor Frank Haas from School of Travel Industry Management at the University of Hawaii.
To lure the Chinese, the Hawaii Tourism Authority has budgeted a total of nearly $2.7 million this fiscal year for marketing there and in Korea. That includes $447,000 to participate in the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, which begins in May.
But for the Chinese traveler, preparations for a trip to the U.S. can still be a hassle. Only the U.S. embassy in Beijing and four consulates located mostly on China’s eastern coast handle visa applications, which require an in-person interview. However, traveling in groups, which tourism experts say Chinese prefer, can ease those impediments.
Chinese travelers spend more than counterparts from any other country – about $7,200 per person per trip, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.