Hundreds of thousand of affluent Chinese tourists enjoying beautiful American landscapes, eating good food, discovering the americans warm welcome… and spending a lot of dollars.
That’s the vision that some Utah tourism-industry executives have, now that China and the United States have an arrangement designed to let Chinese groups travel for fun throughout America. The vision includes someday soon topping the record 320,000 Chinese visitors to the United States in 2006.
“This is a dream destination for the Chinese,” said Keith Griffall, chief executive officer of Western Leisure Inc., a Midvale-based group tour company. “They really haven’t had that opportunity to come here before, and the numbers could grow dramatically. Three hundred and twenty thousand sounds like lot of people, but it could get into the millions easily, and we are looking to get just a little bit of that pie.”
Western Leisure is taking advantage of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries that was signed in December. The agreement provides “approved-destination status” by the Chinese government and permits Chinese group leisure travel to the United States. Travel restrictions have been loosened in recent years for the Chinese, coinciding with a growing number of middle-class Chinese being able to afford long trips. Chinese individuals and groups with visas can travel to the United States for business and education, but Chinese regulations of its travel agencies restrict group leisure trips to nations that have a bilateral agreement with the Chinese government.
The December memorandum with the United States opens the Chinese market for U.S. companies. Western Leisure is one of about 80 companies in the United States that are officially approved to work with outbound travel operators in China to get Chinese groups to visit the United States in packaged group leisure tours. Western Leisure is working with Julian Tours, based in Washington, D.C., to market services under the name “American Travel Dreams” and has a representative at an office in Beijing.
The number of Chinese visitors to the United States has been on the rise since 2003, when 157,000 Chinese travelers came to America. The 320,000 Chinese visitors in 2006 put China as the 17th-largest international travel market for the United States. The Department of Commerce expects 579,000 Chinese to visit by 2011. The United Nations World Tourism Organization is predicting that overall outbound Chinese travel could reach 100 million by 2020.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez has said the new memorandum should allow more Chinese visitors to “experience America’s hospitality, cultural diversity and natural beauty.”
Griffall, who has served on the Board of the Travel Industry of America for the past six years and is past president of the National Tour Association, said the growing incomes in China are creating a huge potential market for tourism. “If you look at the big picture, the size of the population and the number of people able to travel now because of the money they’re making, you can look and it will appear kind of overwhelming,” he said. “Not all of them can travel, but the fact is that more can, and more and more will be able to.”
Fusheng Wu, associate professor at the Asian Studies Program and director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Utah, believes a lot of affluent and upper-middle-class Chinese want to visit the United States. He has Chinese friends who have traveled to Europe for recreation because of a travel memorandum between China and the European Union.
“I know a lot of people who want to come to the United States just to take a look, because the United States, in a lot of Chinese people’s minds, really represents the ultimate achievement of the Western civilization. There’s a lot of interest in coming to the United States, and lot of people have the financial resources to do that.”
When they come, they probably will spend big. The Travel Industry Association estimates that in 2006, the typical Chinese visitor in the United States spent more than $6,000 on a trip, compared with the typical $1,000 per stay for domestic travelers. Total spending by the 320,000 visitors in 2006 was more than $2 billion, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. That included $1.6 billion on travel products and services and $431 million to U.S. carriers. As said Pierre Gervois, CEO of China Elite Focus, a marketing agency specialized on the affluent and very affluent Chinese outbound tourists “This new wave of Chinese tourists coming to the United States wants to discover the “real” America, with beautiful landscapes and the authentic America”
Leigh von der Esch, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said the office has no firm or current numbers on Chinese visitors, but most
their visits have been business-oriented. She said the office will try to ensure that the products being marketed to the Chinese contain lots of information about Utah. “The first thing we want to do is familiarize our product with the Chinese tour operators so we’re ‘top of mind’ within what they’re selling,” she said.