NEW ORLEANS — Over the last couple of years, tourism leaders in Fairbanks, Alaska, noticed a new and unexpected trend: Wealthy Chinese students were flying to Fairbanks in March.
That’s typically not a very busy time of the year for travel to Alaska’s second-largest city. However, it had become popular among these students to visit the Arctic Circle during their spring break, and so quite a few were heading to Alaska, renting cars to make the often treacherous winter drive up the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle.
Fairbanks is just one destination that finds itself learning on the fly how to target and understand Chinese travelers. They are arguably the most important inbound market for the U.S. and the one that seemed to be on the minds of every destination at U.S. Travel’s IPW show here last week.
Chris Thompson, CEO of Brand USA, said the marketing organization is helping the U.S. travel industry become “China ready” with materials, training, guides and tools it can use to understand, target and accommodate the market. Brand USA projects that within three years China could become the largest source market for long-haul travel to the U.S.
China is currently the sixth-largest source market for inbound U.S. tourism, with more than 2 million Chinese coming here in 2014, a 20% jump over the previous year.
“China has an opportunity to be the greatest contributor to our path to 100 million visitors,” Thompson said, referring to President Obama’s goal of increasing the number of foreigners visiting the U.S. to 100 million in a single year by 2021. The U.S. Travel Association said 75 million foreigners visited the country in 2015.
Destinations are salivating over the prospect of a flood of Chinese visitors because of how much they spend and how long they stay.
“What’s great about them is they come for about two weeks, and they’ll spend about $7,000 each per trip, the most of anybody in the world because they have the money to do it,” said Mike Gallagher, CEO of CityPass, who has traveled to China six times to learn more about the market there.
NYC & Company, New York’s marketing arm, said that although Chinese traveler growth slowed to 8% in 2015 after several years of double-digit increases, it still represented the largest growth rate among all international markets. This year, 921,000 Chinese visitors are expected to travel to New York, up from 118,000 in 2007, making it the city’s third-largest international market.
“It’s cooled, but there is slow and steady progress,” said Fred Dixon, CEO of NYC & Company. “As the base grows, it’s difficult to maintain such high growth levels. We’re bullish on China.”
New York has long been getting “China ready,” with a new marketing agency in Shanghai and more content, social media engagement and partnerships in the works for the China market.
Last year, 275,000 Chinese visitors went to Florida, putting it just outside the state’s top 10 international source markets. Will Seccombe, CEO of Visit Florida, said the state is hoping to secure more direct flights with China to fully seize the opportunity the market presents.
Meanwhile, Visit Florida has been marketing to China for several years, and a recent sales mission to China was its most successful ever in terms of participation, with destinations from Tampa to Miami and attractions such as Universal Orlando and SeaWorld all making the trek.
“There’s no question that the market potential for significant growth out of China has definitely gotten the attention of the Florida tourism industry, and we’re acting on it pretty aggressively,” Seccombe said.
One trend that excites these destinations is that Chinese travelers are increasingly traveling alone instead of in organized tours.
“They’ve stopped doing the ‘follow the flag’ group travel,” Gallagher said. “They want to go individually. Three hundred million people in China are learning to speak English.”
Dixon said the drive toward single-destination trips, instead of multi-city tours, signals an important opportunity for destinations such as New York to try to keep them for longer stays.
For many, tackling China is a two-way educational street. Broadway Inbound, a ticketing source for tour groups and travel partners, works with an agency in China to try to educate the market there about buying tickets for Broadway shows, and for itself to understand Chinese vacation-buying habits, such as at what point in the vacation-planning process they make such purchases and through what channels.
In many cases, destinations are simply hiring people who speak Chinese languages and understand its culture. In California’s Napa Valley, wineries and hotels are responding to a surge in Chinese visitors, who now represent the region’s biggest growth market.
“I can think of five wineries off the bat that have hired Mandarin-speaking wine educators,” said Angela Jackson of Visit Napa Valley. “The Chinese visitor wants to be able to understand the wine.”