Universal Studios put on a three-day celebration of Chinese art and culture last week, "Glamorous Beijing: World City," complete with a traditional lion and dragon dance. Against that backdrop, officials with the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention board signed an agreement with the Beijing Municipal Commission of Tourism to promote tourism between the two cities.
It's a sign of the non-stop growth of Chinese tourism to Southern California since 2008, when the government of China began allowing tourists to come to the United States. This year, China became the top source of international tourism for the county.
“When you look at what’s happening with the Chinese traveler, the numbers are literally exponentially exploding," said Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association. "We estimate there are upwards of 250-300 million people in China that could come to the United States tomorrow.”
To prepare for all those visitors, local hotels, theme parks and restaurants have something to learn from 1970s and 80s, he said, when the Japanese began to travel to the United States in large numbers.
“The organizations that got the most business from them were those that began putting in Japanese breakfasts, putting slippers in the rooms, various tea services, having people who spoke the language, changing menu items, having television stations," Dow said. "And the chains that do that the best are going to get a greater share of the Chinese traveler than those that just say, well, it’s just another international traveler."
Some theme parks and hotels across Southern California are already responding to the growth of Chinese tourists. Universal Studios, for instance, offers its backlot tour in Mandarin.
Carl Bolte, general manager of the Hilton Los Angeles/San Gabriel, volunteered his hotel as a Beta test for the chain's Hwan-ying program, which means ‘welcome’ in Chinese.
He placed slippers in each room, added Chinese television stations, and added Chinese food items -- such as dumplings and a rice porridge called congee -- to the hotel menu.
“We have tea kettles that are available upon request," Bolte said. "Every hotel will have a coffee maker. Well, they don’t drink coffee."
He has a Chinese kitchen. He’s even hired a Chinese purchasing agent who knows where in L.A. to buy authentic Chinese ingredients -- and a chef to cook and prepare traditional dishes.
Most importantly, he hired Mandarin-speaking employees -- which is key because the vast majority of Chinese tourists do not speak English.
“English and Chinese are so different," said Qin Xiaolu, who was visiting the U.S. for the first time from Beijing last week. "If you are American, you can go to England, you can go to France.
"But Chinese is so different," she added, " without a guide, we come here, many things we can’t understand.”
Bolte and the U.S. are investing so much in the Chinese tourist because they spend more than any other international tourist to the U.S.
“They want to go down to Rodeo drive, they want to go down to Beverly Hills, “ Bolte said. “A lot of it is made in China, but they can’t purchase it in China. They have to come here to purchase it, and then take it back to China. I always found that to be a little ironic.”
Dow and the U.S. Travel Association, which refers to Chinese tourists as “walking stimulus packages,” say the average Chinese tourist spends about $7,200 per trip.
“The Chinese traveler ends up going back home with suitcases full of American products,” Dow said.
And they stay a long time.
“They work through tour operators, they’ll plan a trip where they’ll be 20 or 30 Chinese travelers will come to the United States, their typical visit will be upwards of two weeks and more,” Dow said.
China is the only inbound travel market projected to see double-digit, year-over-year growth over the next four years. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, tighter security, coupled with international competition have cut the U.S. global share of the tourism industry by 30 percent.
On January 19, 2011, speaking from Disney World in Florida, President Obama announced the National Tourism Strategy, a program aimed at making it easier for Chinese tourists to come to the United States.
“I confess, I am excited to see Mickey...it’s always nice to meet a world leader who has bigger ears than me,” Obama joked with a crowd of business leaders.
“More money spent by more tourists means more businesses can hire more workers. It’s a pretty simple formula,” he said. “And that’s why we’re all here today to tell the world that America is open for business, we want to welcome you.”
The Obama administration meant business. Since his speech last year, the waiting time at a Chinese consulate for an American leisure visa has fallen from over 100 days, to under five.