Relaxed travel rules between the United States and China have opened the door to Chinese tour groups for the first time.
The new rules could mean tens of millions of dollars for Northern California, a gateway for Chinese coming to America ever since the Gold Rush.
Before the new rules, Chinese were allowed to visit the United States only on business, to see relatives or by special invitation from universities or other public institutions. Under a U.S.-China agreement reached in last December, Chinese tourists can now come on organized trips to the United States just for leisure.
Last year, 40 million Chinese tourists traveled abroad, but only 300,000 came to the United States because of the old visa restrictions, said Defa Tong, spokesman for the People’s Republic of China’s Consulate General in San Francisco.
That number is expected to double in the next several years, and with the average tourist spending $198 a day in the United States, Tong said. “It’s a huge market.”
The new Chinese tourists could spend as much as $60 million a year in Sacramento alone, according to data provided by the U.S. Commerce Department and the California Department of Tourism.
Northern California, home to 500,000 Chinese Americans, will likely be a first stop for many of them as it has been for generations.
By the 1940s, about 3,000 Chinese farmers and factory workers lived around Locke, which had fish markets, herb shops, casinos, boarding houses and the Star Theatre.
By the 1990s, Locke was nearly a ghost town until Shanghai painter Ning Hou breathed new life into its rickety streets with his gallery and art school.
But Locke – for all its history and charm – isn’t enough for Sacramento to take advantage of the growing tourist market, Yee said.
Yee is leading the charge for the “Yee Fow Center for History, Culture and Trade,” which would be located not far from the site of Sacramento’s original Chinatown.
“We don’t really have a place we can bring Chinese tourists unless you take them to Locke,” said Pat Fong-Kushida, president of the 700-member Sacramento Asian Pacific Chamber of Commerce.
Yee, Fong-Kushida and other Asian Americans are hoping a new 240-acre development planned for the railyard will include a center honoring Chinese contributions to California.
Still, Sacramento could easily draw 10,000 to 20,000 new Chinese tourists in the next year, said Richard Champley, senior research analyst for the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“They may want to come and see the governor,” said Champley.
His agency figures that Chinese visitors typically spend “in the neighborhood of $6,000 per visitor per trip, including $3,000-$4,000 a person on hotels, food and rental cars.”