LOS ANGELES (eTN) – At Universal Studios, they’ve printed stacks of theme park maps in Chinese.
Disneyland for the first time sent sales people to a trade show in China to promote the park.
And at the Shanghai Spring travel agency in Alhambra, northeast of downtown Los Angeles, owner Jan Huang has contracted four new tour buses and hopes to double her staff of tour guides to 20.
It’s all in preparation for what they hope could be a boom in new Chinese tourism to the United States following a long-awaited agreement between the two countries. The American travel industry hopes the expected surge in Chinese visitors will bring in billions of dollars.
The deal, signed Tuesday by U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez in Beijing, will allow Chinese travel agencies to market packaged leisure tours to American destinations, and it will permit U.S. destinations to advertise directly to the Chinese public.
With the number of Chinese who travel outside their homeland expected to nearly triple to 100 million people by 2020, an infusion of tourists to the United States could help American businesses.
”Potentially in the next 10 years, they could blow out all our other markets,” said Bruce Bommarito, vice president of international market development for the Travel Industry Association, a U.S. business group.
Chinese travelers on average spend upward of $6,000 per visit to the United States — more than residents of any other nation — according to the Commerce Department’s most recent calculations.
The travel rules are expected to be a particular boon to Southern California, which already sees more Chinese tourists — 110,000 in Los Angles County last year — than anywhere else in the United States. But travel officials expect that number to grow significantly if more members of China’s emerging middle and upper classes are able to travel here for vacations.
”The Chinese middle class has been accumulating tremendous wealth,” said Baizhu Chen, a professor of clinical finance and business economics at the University of Southern California. “They’re buying houses and cars, and now they want to travel. The Chinese have been closed for so long, they’re eager to see the outside world.”
In some ways, the situation appears similar to that of two decades ago, when free-spending Japanese flooded the likes of Disneyland and snatched up luxury goods on Rodeo Drive. During those boom years, Japanese also ventured to Florida, drawn by the state’s ample golf courses and, what for the Japanese, were bargain-priced waterfront condos.
Chen and others expect the Chinese to spend their money on higher-end shopping rather than on expensive restaurants and hotels. ”The first batch of Chinese tourists won’t be that sophisticated,” said Chen, the USC professor. “They will come in tour groups, not as individuals, and will need to stay in places where people speak their language.”
Merchants who already cater to Chinese tourists are gearing up.
In Monterey Park, east of Los Angeles, drug stores line Garvey Avenue selling vitamins, dietary supplements and virility pills popular among Chinese tourists who can often be found perusing the shopping district in business suits. Many of them don’t trust the safety and capabilities of similar drugs in China.
The same can be said for jewelry and luxury watches, because many visitors are worried about fakes sold in Asia.
Busloads of Chinese tourists and delegations often pour into Hing Wa Lee’s green marble and wood veneer showroom in San Gabriel to buy diamond rings, gold figurines and Rolex watches. Afterward, they head to any of the area’s dozens of authentic Chinese restaurants before retiring at the six-story Hilton hotel that towers over the many businesses offering imported DVDs, CDs, herbal medicines and foot massages.
Until the agreement, China’s travel industry was prohibited from marketing the United States as a travel destination because of disputes over the strict entry process after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — and U.S. tourist hot spots were unable to open tourism offices in China.
Before Tuesday’s agreement a few cities and states, including Nevada and New York City, negotiated individually with the Chinese government for permission to sidestep some of the restrictions.
Though no law bars Chinese residents from applying for various visas to enter the United States, many Chinese have been put off by what they consider high rejection rates, long lines at the U.S. embassies and consulates, lengthy personal interviews and costly application fees.
Noel Irwin Hentschel, chief executive of AmericanTours International — an L.A.-based tour operator and vice chair of the Commerce Department’s U.S. Travel and Tourism Promotion Advisory Board, has hired more Chinese-speaking staff in anticipation of the visa change.
She said the first stages of the agreement will allow only half a dozen Chinese tour operators to package vacations to the United States. Travelers would likely be restricted to the wealthy minority who live in major urban centers, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Estimates range as to how many more Chinese could visit the United States, but most agree it will be far higher than the 600,000 travelers who came last year, mostly under the guise of business delegations.
All told, the United States received only a fraction of the 34 million Chinese who traveled overseas last year, a figure that is expected to increase 10 percent each year and swell to 100 million by 2020.
Europe, Australia and Asian countries near China, including Thailand and Singapore, are all deemed approved destinations by the Chinese government and have so far benefited most from the surge of tourists.
But in an October survey of 7,000 urban Chinese who were asked what country outside of Hong Kong and Macau they would choose to visit if they were unhampered by any practical considerations, the United States was the No. 1 choice, followed by France and Australia.
Participants in the survey, paid for in part by the American travel industry and by the Commerce Department, were contacted by random telephone dial and were not told that the survey was American-sponsored.
”Chinese tourists have been everywhere but the United States,” Chen said. ‘They see all the Hollywood movies and they see the culture. America in Chinese literally means `beautiful country.’ There’s a lot of mystique.”