Robert Silk
Robert Silk
Last December, McCarran Airport in Las Vegas celebrated the launch of its first nonstop China service, a three-times per week route to and from Beijing on Hainan Airlines.

But airport and tourism officials in the Nevada entertainment mecca didn't just treat its first direct connection with the world's most populous nation as a fait accompli.

Instead, in tandem with the new flight, McCarran rolled out what it calls its China-Welcome Program. Under the program's direction, incoming travelers from China are greeted at McCarran by Mandarin-speaking welcome ambassadors, often local college students, who help guide the weary flyers as they go through customs, make connections and figure out how to make their way to local hotels.

Other elements of China-Welcome include Mandarin wayfinding signs that help non-English-speaking Chinese travelers navigate the airport; a McCarran microsite within the immensely popular WeChat app, which is used by nearly 1 billion Chinese each month; and support for airport vendors that wish to improve their readiness for Chinese customers. Airport restaurants, for example, are encouraged to have Mandarin menus and shops and restaurants are encouraged to accept UnionPay credit cards, which are the most-used cards in China.

Hainan's arriving passengers appreciate the program, Joel Chusid, the carrier's executive director for the U.S., told me recently.

"The presence of the ambassadors really has a calming effect on the Chinese passengers during what can typically be a stressful sequence of events arriving in a foreign country," he said.  

For Americans traveling abroad, it's rare to face situations in which English is not readily available. Visit major airports or traverse highways in countries around the world and signs generally include English along with the country's native language. That's because English is the primary international language of commerce.

But China is fast on the rise, with an economy that, according to a study completed this summer by PricewaterhouseCoopers, will be larger than the U.S. economy sometime around 2025.

Still, for Chinese visitors to the U.S., odds are that they'll encounter very little Mandarin-language infrastructure in the U.S., especially if they are outside destinations such as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Even airports that have a Mandarin page on their website often create that page by simply translating from the English rather the developing it in Mandarin from scratch, said Mike Boyd, a principal in the Boyd Group aviation consulting firm as well as in the firm China Ni Hao, which helped McCarran develop the China-Welcome Program. The result is typically a webpage in clunky Mandarin that isn't likely to impress a Chinese visitor.

Impressing the Chinese traveler, however, is becoming exponentially more important for all sectors of the U.S. travel industry, from destinations to airlines and hotels.

According to the Department of Commerce's National Travel and Tourism Office, 3 million Chinese visited the U.S. in 2016, a more than tenfold increase just since 2005. China is now the fifth-largest source of international visitors to the U.S., behind only Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Japan.

Moreover, Chinese visitors are exceptionally valuable on a measure of strict dollars and cents. Last year, they spent $33 billion in the U.S., the National Travel and Tourism Office said, more than visitors from any other country by a long shot. Canadians were second, having spent $20.9 billion.

But according to the Boyd Group's "Airports: China" forecast of passenger traffic at China's 50 biggest airports, the 2016 figures are just the tip of the iceberg. By 2021, more than 6 million Chinese per year will visit the U.S.; by 2024, the number jumps to more than 12 million per year.

Much of that growth is likely to come from secondary Chinese markets beyond Shanghai and Beijing. That's partly because under the existing U.S.-China aviation agreement, routes between the U.S. and those cities are capped. But it's also because in recent years carriers have begun broadening their offerings between the U.S. and alternative Chinese markets. China's Xiamen Air, for example, flies nonstop between the southeastern Chinese city of Fuzhou and New York Kennedy. United offers nonstop service from San Francisco to the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu and Xian in central China.

Nevertheless, the Boyd Group says that the travel market between secondary Chinese cities and the U.S. remains largely untapped. The current annual capture, for example, between Shenzen, a city of more than 10.3 million, and the U.S. is 75,000 people, barely a fourth of its U.S. potential. The 101,000 people who traveled to the U.S. from Wuhan, a city of nearly 10 million, in 2016 was less than a fifth of its potential.

Increased partnering between U.S. and Chinese airlines should help open the U.S. to the residents of those huge Chinese markets. As part of American's purchase of a 2.9% stake in China Southern this past spring, the carriers were set in late October to begin codesharing on 14 routes beyond Beijing and on 12 U.S. routes beyond Los Angeles and San Francisco. Delta has a partnership with China Eastern, a carrier of which it became a 3.55% owner in 2015. And United and Air China codeshare on well over 100 domestic routes in China and the U.S.

Another potential game-changer in U.S.-China air connectivity is the planned 2019 opening of the first terminal of Beijing's new Daxing Airport. The terminal will have an annual capacity of 45 million passengers, and its opening could mean easier access to commercially viable landing rights slots in Beijing for U.S. carriers. As a result, the new airport could open the door to the negotiation of a more liberal U.S.-China air service agreement.

Speaking at Boyd Group's International Aviation Forecast Summit in Las Vegas in late August, Mike Boyd made the case that it's not just major U.S. destinations that can gain from the surge in China-U.S. tourism. Many Chinese have a strong interest in Americana, Boyd said. So plenty of smaller markets, such as Milwaukee, home of the Harley Davidson factory, and Nashville, the country music capital, are well positioned to absorb their share of Chinese traffic, provided they roll out the welcome mat.

Chinese investment in the U.S. also reaches deeply in cities and regions that might come as a surprise. A study released jointly in April by the consulting firm the Rhodium Group and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations found that the congressional district that includes Louisville, Ky., has the most jobs in the nation provided by Chinese companies. The congressional district encompassing Charlotte is second on that list.

McCarran isn't the only airport that has taken significant steps to ease the experience for Chinese customers. San Francisco Airport made Chinese-owned Alipay, which has surpassed PayPal as the largest third-party payment platform in the world, available in its duty-free stores last year. And late this summer, the airport teamed with San Francisco Travel in launching a WeChat microsite designed to assist Chinese travelers in exploring the Bay Area.

Ultimately, collaborative efforts like these will help cities overachieve in the burgeoning U.S.-China tourism market. And if enough U.S. cities are China-friendly, the country as a whole could drive even faster-than-expected growth in Chinese visitation, perhaps pulling market share from other countries.

For a city to stand out as China-friendly, efforts need to extend beyond the airport to hotels, attractions and hopefully to at least some restaurants and retailers, as well.

But they need not be exhaustive.

Cities should have a Mandarin page on their websites and offer Mandarin-language maps, China Ni Hao suggests. Midsize cities that really want to stand out from the crowd might consider developing WeChat microsites.

Attractions should offer Mandarin brochures prepared by a native speaker.

On the hotel front, those that cater to the international crowd should also have Mandarin materials available, and China Ni Hao suggests having at least one Mandarin speaker on staff or on call. Hotels that really want to make an impression could also offer Chinese tea and slippers in guest rooms.

The ever-increasing economic might of Chinese consumers makes the incoming China market the most fertile ground for growth in the international travel industry. Now is the time for U.S. destinations to make sure they grab their fair share of that prize.
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