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Year of the Dragon Boosts Chinese Tourism to U.S.

Posted: Jan 23, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO – People in China traditionally head home for the lunar New Year holiday, marking one of the largest annual human migrations on the planet. This year, however, a growing number are opting to travel abroad, bringing in new streams of tourism revenue to destinations in the Bay Area and across the country.

Qiquan Shao operates Classic Tours in San Francisco. Catering primarily to visitors from China and other countries in Asia, he told the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily that his clients are here to spend.

“A thousand dollars on a pair of shoes or a handbag is common,” he said. And when it comes to food, he added, “Chinese tourists are usually not picky, though they expect to have at least one steak dinner with a selection of California wines on hand.”

Jan. 23 marks the start of the lunar New Year, celebrated across much of East and Southeast Asia, and the beginning of the “Year of the Dragon,” often associated with rising power and wealth.

Traditionally a time when families celebrate together in the home, rising salaries across China are helping to fuel a break with custom.

According to China’s National Tourism Administration, the number of Chinese traveling out of the country during the New Year holiday, which runs from Jan. 23 to Jan. 28, is expected to rise 60 percent from the same time a year ago. Europe, Australia, and the United States are preferred destinations.

“I’m hoping the [U.S.] government eases restrictions on travel visas for Chinese visitors,” said Zhiping Chen, who manages Joy Holiday Travel in San Francisco.

President Obama promised as much last Thursday as he stood in front of Cinderella Castle in Florida’s Disneyworld, where he unveiled his administration’s strategy for boosting tourism and travel to the United States.

“Every year, tens of millions of tourists from all over the world come and visit America,” Obama said in a press statement. “And the more folks who visit America, the more Americans can get back to work."

Still, despite the revenue boost, Chen warned local tour groups not to fall into the habit of seeing Chinese visitors as simply walking wallets, or they run the risk of losing this vital market.

“Many travel agencies offer cheap packages to attract more tourists,” Chen told the paper, “but when the tourists come to the United Sates, the tour guides only take them shopping and encourage them to buy high-priced items because [the guides] get a commission from the sales."

Chinese do love to shop when they travel, acknowledged Chen, but many are also looking to “experience a taste of American life.”

Figures from China’s state-run tourism bureau show some 65 million Chinese traveled abroad in 2011, spending upwards of $55 billion, making them the fourth-largest spenders behind travelers from Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Overall, China’s share of the global tourism market is expected to reach 8 percent by 2013, surpassing Japan as the world’s second largest, Boston Consulting Group said in a recent report.

Chen notes that his clients spend on average about $6,000 per visitor, and that in order to entice return visitors travel agencies need to do more than “simply offer cheap packages.”

Agents that cater to Chinese tourists still lump clients into one of two groups, said Chen, the business traveler or the group tourist. “Today’s Chinese tourist is more diverse,” he added, “ranging from the millionaire to the backpacker.”

Then there’s the international student.

According to Open Doors, which provides data on international students studying in the United States, 127,628 Chinese enrolled in American colleges and universities in the 2009/10 school year, making China the United States’ largest source of international students.

And come New Year, many take to the road to see the country, often with parents visiting from the homeland.

“January is usually off-season here,” said the manager of the New York-based EC Holiday who gave his name as Qian. “But the large number of international students from China here has created a valuable business opportunity.”

Qian told the Sing Tao that his company recently began offering 8-day tours of the East Coast, hoping to attract students and visiting parents, who together account for more than 30 percent of his clientele.

In Los Angeles that competition is actually driving prices down, say local travel agencies there. A report in the Chinese-language World Journal quoted the head of one agency, who complained that the increasing number of New year’s travelers from China all looking for the best deal “makes it difficult for tour operators to maintain high standards while still making a profit.”

For Chinese travelers, a majority still see the New Year holiday as a time for family and home, but that doesn’t mean they’ve ruled out travel plans.

“The more traditional still prefer to celebrate at home,” the head of New York-based Trans Pacific Express told the Sing Tao. “So many of them plan their trips abroad for just before of after the holiday.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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