With more disposable income than any other nation in the world, China’s wealthy and rising middle classes are anxious to explore iconic destinations the world over. Despite occasional economic and political dust-ups between the two nations’ governments, a record number of Chinese visitors came to the U.S. in 2011.
In the first 10 months of 2011, visits from mainland Chinese rose 36% year-over-year to 940,000, according to the International Trade Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Chinese visitors’ spending in the U.S. shot up 39% in 2010 to $5 billion, a growth rate that outpaced visitors from all other countries who have been traditionally high spenders in America.
No one connected to the industry wants to miss out on this opportunity to cash in. American shopping malls, hotels, and airlines, are educating tour operators in even the most obscure Chinese cities, beefing up their amenities to include traditional food and Mandarin Chinese speakers to woo tourists.
The growth is impressive, considering delays in getting visas have been a frequent complaint among Chinese travelers and travel executives. Chinese are still required to have a face-to-face interview with an embassy official. And with only five consular offices in China, applicants in secondary and tertiary cities — an increasingly important group — must travel overnight for an interview.
“We’re seeing real increases from China and Brazil, which would only be higher if the U.S. were to ease visas,” said Doug Killian, director of tourism marketing at Mall of America.
The hospitality industry, particularly large hotels, has responded to these surging numbers aggressively. Starwood, which owns the Sheraton, Westin, and W brands, began offering Chinese amenities and services — in-room tea kettles, slippers, translated restaurant menus and welcome brochures, on-site translation services and comfort food such as congee (rice porridge) and noodles — at some of its hotels in gateway cities such as New York and Hawaii. Starwood plans to introduce the services at all its properties by the end of this year.
Hilton started a Chinese-guest program last year with 30 hotels in major cities worldwide, and has expanded it to 63 hotels. Its services include Chinese meals, hiring Chinese speakers, and displaying oranges and tangerines in lobbies, symbols of wealth and good luck.
The retail sector has been working with tour operators, too, to make shops a must-see destination. Chinese spent on average $3,197 per person in New York in 2010. “They’re sort of the new Japanese,” said Fred Dixon, NYC & Company’s senior vice president of tourism & convention development, alluding to the fact that the Chinese are not the biggest spenders among foreign travel groups.
To appeal to overseas tourists, Bloomingdale’s is preparing to tailor assortments to include flashier name brands and logos, said Michael Gould, the department store chain’s CEO. Many tourists prefer prominent logos on iconic American brands. Bloomingdale’s is currently planning its overseas marketing campaign.
“We’re expecting an enormous uptick in growth,” Gould said from the Bloomingdale’s New York headquarters. “We have the kind of brands that are highly respected by these visitors, and the faster they can get here the better.”
Top analysts agree. “Speeding up the visa process is one of the quickest ways to boost the U.S. economy,” Matthew Shay, president of the National Retail Federation, said. President Barack Obama signed an executive order on January 19 giving the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of State 60 days to revamp its policy on processing visa applications from China. Citing the U.S. Travel Association, the NRF reported on the same day that the resulting increase in U.S. tourism could create 1.3 million jobs and add $850 billion to the economy by 2020.