Announced last November, the U.S. government’s decision to grant 10-year tourist visas to Chinese citizens was widely expected to boost inbound Chinese arrivals, particularly in major “gateway” cities like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco — and it has.
The Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board reported a 20 percent increase in visitation from China in 2014 over 2013, welcoming nearly 700,000 Chinese visitors last year. This double-digit growth in Los Angeles is expected to continue for at least the next three years. San Francisco, which welcomed around 250,000 Chinese tourists in 2013, expects their numbers to balloon to around 700,000 within the next eight years — a time period in which New York will see Chinese tourist arrivals leap to 1.2 million per year.
In these three international gateway cities, the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) predicts that Chinese tourist arrivals will triple within the next decade, and their spending will quadruple.
Since enacting the 10-year visas, the U.S. State Department has seen a 41 percent increase in Chinese applications, according to Brand USA. The relaxed visa policy allows Chinese citizens to stay in the U.S. longer and make repeated spur-of-the-moment trips. But possibly the most important knock-down effect is that Chinese tourists will have more time to visit a wider range of less-traveled destinations, beyond their initial gateways.
Take Salt Lake City, for example. The Utah capital and ski destination was virtually unknown to Chinese visitors until very recently. In the past few years, however, the city has enjoyed a surge of Chinese visitors in the summer season, as they pass through Salt Lake en route to Yellowstone National Park, one of the most aspirational attractions for Chinese visiting the United States.
More than 300,000 Chinese visited the park last year, a number that’s expected to jump to nearly half a million by the end of 2015. And an increasing number of these tourists are electing to spend time in Salt Lake City while passing through the area.
According to Tianyu Yu, president and founder of U.S. Day Joys – a local receptive travel agency based in Salt Lake City – his company received over 300 Chinese tour groups this summer, traveling to Salt Lake City and Yellowstone, with each group averaging 25-40 guests.
Visit Salt Lake, the city’s convention and tourism bureau, recently organized a China Market Seminar for its members to discuss new opportunities to engage the Chinese visitor. Over 80 members attended, evidence of strong local interest in this topic. In addition to its natural side, Visit Salt Lake has sought to promote its cosmopolitan side in China, partnering with BrandUSA on a Chinese-language spot to promote City Creek Center, Salt Lake City’s premier shopping destination.
Cities immediately adjacent to major gateways are also making inroads to increase their market share.
The city of Pasadena, California recently launched its “China Ready” program to attract and engage Chinese visitors, leveraging its advantageous position near the core of the San Gabriel Valley’s historical Chinese community, as well as its cultural attractions and shopping opportunities.
The Premium Outlets at Cabazon, a short 15 mile drive from Palm Springs, is already a hotspot for Chinese tourists, with many tour operators now organizing day trips from Los Angeles featuring outlet shopping and a visit to the Sunnylands retreat. (Which rocketed to fame in China after hosting a meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in June 2013.)
Since that high-profile visit, interest in Sunnylands has skyrocketed among Chinese visitors in the LA area. Currently, the Sunnylands Center estimates that 15 to 20 percent of their visitors now hail from China. The center is reported to have a Chinese-language website and brochures, and shows a promotional film, “A Place Called Sunnylands,” with Chinese subtitles.
In the wake of recent European immigration pressure, several EU member countries have instituted, or are considering, biometric requirements or other subtle shifts in visa policy that may constrain tourism. Some Chinese tourism industry insiders are already predicting a reduction in demand for travel to European gateways, which will further benefit U.S. destinations.
Even with the massive growth in visitation and spending that has followed the Obama administration’s visa policy change, only 5 percent of Chinese citizens hold passports, indicating this is only the tip of the iceberg as international travel is within the grasp of a growing middle class. (For comparison, 46 percent of Americans hold passports.)
In the year ahead, CLA expects these strong tourism trends to accelerate as Chinese citizens gain greater access to international travel and seek to diversify assets into global markets — and see more than just the usual sites on long-haul trips.