Chinese Visitors to U.S. Soar as Market Matures
SHANGHAI –– Inbound travel to the U.S. from China is skyrocketing. Arrivals from China (excluding Hong Kong) are forecast to increase a whopping 274% between 2012 and 2016. It's the fastest growth –– by far –– of any country, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“If Chinese people have not visited the U.S., they feel they haven’t really seen the world,” said Haybina Hao, director of international development for NTA.
Most first-time visitors to the U.S. opt for group tours sold by Chinese travel retailers. But independent travel is gaining in popularity, Hao told Travel Market Report, in a recent interview at the NTA Visit USA Center in Shanghai.
Hao, who works out of the NTA’s Lexington, Ky., office, was in China to participate in a series of road shows for travel agents and consumers.
Return visitors are adventuresome
The typical first-time traveler spends an average of two weeks in the U.S., according to Hao. Their standard itinerary includes some combination of New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Repeat visitors are decidedly more adventurous, often focusing on activities such as golfing, skiing and driving, Hao said.
Some repeat visitors are giving new meaning to the concept of fly-drive packages.
Earlier this year, groups of Chinese visitors traveled to York, Penn., for a tour of Harley-Davidson’s motorcycle factory, then saddled up a fleet of hogs and rode to Philadelphia as part of a group itinerary, Hao said.
Affluent visitors take to the skies
Another trend among repeat visitors includes tours that are organized around flying private planes.
Hao explained that while consumers can earn a pilot’s license in China, airspace restrictions and a lack of facilities make it all but impossible to actually spend time in the air behind the controls.
Hao has seen an increase in affluent Chinese visitors who travel to the U.S. to put their pilot licenses to use.
Traditional agencies prevail
Most Chinese consumers rely on traditional travel agencies to purchase travel products, and they prefer in-person presentations. “Only very sophisticated travelers purchase flights and hotels online,” Hao said.
Chinese consumers trust travel retailers because most have educated themselves by traveling to the U.S. to inspect destinations and they create itineraries that combine the right tour operators and destinations.
Westerners might assume that inbound Chinese visitors are residents of economic powerhouses like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. But many more travel from lesser-known metropolitan areas, typically referred to as second- and third-tier cities, Hao said.
Agent education in second-tier cities
While these metropolitan areas have populations that approach 10 million, most travelers prefer to work with travel agencies in Shanghai and Beijing because the second-tier cities often lack sufficient travel agency services, she said.
It is the goal of the Visit USA Center to change that.
The Visit USA Center staff recently completed a round of presentations for consumers and agents in second-tier cities such as Chongqing, Chengdu, Shenyang and Dalian, Hao said.
The events were held in conjunction with U.S. suppliers, including Disneyland Park, tourism representatives from the state of Georgia, Hilton Hotels, and five West Coast-based tour operators that specialize in in-bound Chinese travel.
Building leisure travel
The mission of the Visit USA Center, which opened in Shanghai in January, is to foster leisure travel from China to the U.S.
Key strategies included facilitating relationships between travel professionals in both countries and marketing the U.S. as a tourism destination to Chinese consumers. The Visit USA Center also maintains a website in traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese and English.
Warnings on cut-rate trips
A recent focus of the Visit USA Center is helping travelers understand that cut-rate itineraries often do not provide the best travel value and experience.
“Chinese people are very careful with their money, and they negotiate hard with travel agencies for lower-price options,” she said. In the past, retailers have promoted tours that offer low-cost per diem rates, but hit travelers with expensive add-ons once they are in the U.S.
“We don’t like to see this,” Hao said. She noted that the Visit USA Center recently removed a U.S. tour operator from its list of recommended wholesalers, because the firm had continued this practice.
See related story, “China's Travel Sellers Get Educational Boost From NTA, Commerce Dept.,” Aug. 4, 2011.