A tour bus pulls up outside the Red Lotus restaurant, one of three Chinese restaurants in a town of about 1,500. Thirty Chinese tourists unload. They immediately start to photograph a nearby sign in Chinese.
“So this sign is saying: ‘soldier, brothers and shooting range’ … you can do it yourself, now, here,” explains my Chinese-English translator, Xuying Wang.
Eric and Beverly Yarger own the indoor range, known in English as Yellowstone Big Gun Fun. They hired someone from China to help them with the Chinese name. And they hire Chinese staff every summer to handle the tourists.
In fact, they set up shop here specifically to cater to vacationing Chinese.
“We were very much aware of the fact that the Chinese come to America to see Yellowstone Park,” Beverly Yarger says. “That’s the number one thing for them to do, and to go to Vegas. And so, we came up here, observed how many tour buses were coming in and how many were Chinese.”
Yellowstone may or may not be the number one attraction, but it is very popular. By opening the only shooting range in town, the Yarger’s have found an activity that Chinese tourists enjoy after spending the day in the park. They estimate that half of their annual business comes from China. Eric Yarger says it’s even more during the summer.
“During the summer, probably 80 percent are Chinese,” he says. “They all like to shoot the AK-47 and the M-4. If its shiny, they’ll shoot it.”
As we talk, another large group of Chinese tourists comes in after a day in Yellowstone. They’re pretty serious about deciding which guns to shoot. The menu — in Chinese — explains their choices: $25 to shoot a rifle or handgun, $50 for a machine gun and up to $349 for a bit of everything. Their tour guide Kevin Zhang says this is a big deal for his clients.
“In China, they seldom have chance to shoot a real gun,” Zhang says. “So I talk with them, [tell] that it’s legal to shoot a gun in the United States. So they have a strong curiosity to come here. Most of them their first time to touch a real gun.”
Choosing a gun was easy for a young man who calls himself “Louis” — he shot the AK-47. Louis says when he plays computer games he uses the AK-47.
Louis says he’ll tell his friends who come here that they should pick a smaller gun, because the AK-47 is very powerful.
But it’s clear that Louis really enjoyed shooting that very powerful gun. He can’t stop smiling. And it’s because of happy clients like this that the Yargers don’t really need to reach out to tour companies in China anymore. Business comes from word of mouth on social media.
Yun Jie from Inner Mongolia was nervous about her first time shooting a gun, so she picked the gentler gun that was recommended. As we speak, she types on her smartphone, telling her friends that she is going to shoot a gun in America. She says she is getting a lot of likes.
And that’s something all business people in the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, like to hear.