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Is America Ready for Chinese Tourists?


Last year, 30 million tourists from China traveled abroad. Only 200,000 of them visited the United States. But many U.S. travel experts predict that number will grow dramatically in the coming years. Preparing for this expected wave of Chinese visitors was a prominent theme at the recent Global Travel and Tourism Summit in Washington, D.C.

Tim Zagat, founder and publisher of the popular Zagat restaurant and entertainment guides, describes the prospect for Chinese tourism this way: China’s small but burgeoning middle class, he says, might soon make up 10 percent of the Chinese population. That would represent about 150 million people, roughly the size of the American middle class. The number of newly affluent Chinese is likely to grow even more dramatically as the country’s economy strengthens, and that is likely to mean legions of new Chinese tourists.

Zagat predicts, ”When the Chinese people begin to travel outside of China –which they aren’t doing much of yet -- you’re going to see a tidal wave, a tsunami, of the biggest group of tourists who have ever come from any place in the world’s history.”

One of America’s best-known travel reporters, NBC television’s Peter Greenberg, also believes the Chinese middle class is increasingly willing and able to travel, both at home and abroad.

"There are 120 cities in China right now that have more than a million people each,” says Greenberg. “And you and I can’t name a single one of them. I’m not talking about Shanghai, Beijing, or Guangzhou. I’m talking about the other 120. There’s a pent-up demand for travel. The Internet has changed the entire equation for the Chinese; the government can no longer control their people."

"They’re going to want to travel and have the means now," he continues. "It’s not going to be high-end [expensive] travel to begin with. But they want to go. When I do a piece on the ‘Today’ show, I get e-mails from China saying ‘nice job.’ They’re watching; they’re reading. They want to know what’s hot, what’s hip.”

J.W. Marriott, Jr., who manages one of the world’s largest hotel companies, says one stumbling block for many potential Chinese visitors to the United States is that the U.S. does not enjoy China’s so-called “Approved Destination Status,” which makes non-business trips to the country easier. ”We can’t do much until we get the Approved Destination Status for the United States,” Marriott says. “Once we get the Approved Destination Status, we would really work hard in China to bring people to this country.”

Other travel experts are concerned that the wave of Chinese tourism will create logistical and security problems at U.S. ports of entry. But Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told delegates at the Global Travel and Tourism summit that the United States is hoping to deploy new technology -such as computerized fingerprint and retinal scanners- to make entry easier, faster and more secure for international visitors.

”We must insure that the security of the visa process remains intact, as does the private, biometric information of applicants,” Secretary Rice told the audience. “We want to insure safety and privacy. If we can do this successfully, this new process could make life dramatically easier for many foreign citizens who now have to travel great distances just to be interviewed by a U.S. consular officer. We’re making entry into America faster; we’re also trying to make it friendlier and still secure.”

While visa issues are ironed out, Peter Greenberg says China and the United States need to prepare for the new wave of tourism, by reconfiguring everything from airport facilities to visitor centers.

”I would say in the next three years, [tourism] is going to explode,” Greenberg exclaims. “The question is whether the infrastructure is ready for it. Interestingly, the Chinese infrastructure is ready. You land in some of these cities and you’re the only plane on the runway or gate. There are 95 gates and you figure they’ve evacuated the airport. No. They’re building ahead of time; they’re thinking ahead.”

The United States and India are also expected to be exchanging more tourists in the years ahead. Mr. Greenberg says India needs to improve its ground transportation system to accommodate the expected boom: ”If you want to go from the domestic to the international terminal in Dehli, it’s 45 minutes, and it’s the same airport! The Indians have work to do; the Chinese are thinking smart.”

Mr. Greenberg says American tourism officials are just beginning to advertise U.S. travel destinations in Chinese and other foreign markets, recognizing that Chinese travelers have many places besides America to choose from. ”It’s not the ‘American market’ anymore,” Greenberg explains. “The smart people in the American market –cities like Las Vegas and New York -- have figured out we need a presence over [in China] and a presence big time. It’s not a question of when; it’s now.”

Tim Zagat says the hotel and restaurant industry needs to assess the needs and tastes of the “new tourists. ”The changes of people who are coming into money means that they will also be [going to] better and better restaurants,” says Zagat. “As they travel they will be more demanding of their hotels. At every level, this portends for the good of the travel and tourism industry.”

With 32 hotels already operating in China –and 14 more soon to come— the Marriott brand is well-known among potential Chinese tourists, according to executive J.W. Marriott, Jr. He says that gives his company a head-start over other hotel chains in attracting Chinese tourists when they’re here in the United States.

”I would hope they would stay in Marriott hotels," says Marriott. "We are probably one of the top brands in China – one of the best-known hotels. People always look for something they understand and are familiar with.”

It’s also quite likely, says travel reporter Peter Greenberg, that as more and more Chinese tourists decide to visit the U.S., Chinese entrepreneurs will start buying American travel agencies, hotel companies, and related businesses.

”Within the next three years, they’re going to try and buy all of the infrastructure in the travel business in which their people are going to be staying,” Greenberg says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they make an offer for American Express, Cendant or Starwood [hotels]. Everybody has a price; why wouldn’t you [sell], if someone makes you an offer that takes your stock price into the stratosphere? When [China] starts traveling, they’ll want to own it. And if the price is right, people will want to sell to them.”

Travel reporter Peter Greenberg says it’s not a question of whether the Chinese tourist boom will hit the United States. It’s a question of how soon, and whether American tourism officials will be ready for it.

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