Tour ops see improvement in China

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Potala PalaceTour operators selling China are reporting brisk business and increased consumer and travel agent interest in the destination, an improvement over more moderate growth in the market last year. And to meet the increased demand, some are adding new product and destinations within China.

Wendy Wu, founder and chief executive of Wendy Wu Tours in New York, said "business to China is doing well, from a general industry perspective as well as our own." She described recent growth in China bookings as "very, very strong."

It's a sharp contrast to 2011 and earlier years, Wu added. "Last year, we went to visit many U.S. travel agents, and they said for the last few years China had been a bit quiet for them," she said. "But now they say they're getting lots of inquiries."

According to statistics from the National Tourism Administration of China and the China National Tourist Office, in 2011 China registered more than 12.2 million international arrivals. Americans comprise the fourth-largest group of visitors.

About 2.1 million U.S. visitors arrived in China in 2011, a modest 5.3% rise compared with 2010. About 1.1 million of those arriving Americans were leisure travelers, as opposed to people on business or visiting friends and family.

Wu foresees bigger jumps in China arrivals for 2012 and beyond, given both brighter economic prospects and increased interest in the country in the U.S.

"From where I stand, I see the economy picking up, and then interest in China itself is up, too," she said. "Our sales agencies in field report that travel agencies are much busier."

Similarly, at Pacific Delight Tours in New York, China -- which accounts for some 80% of business -- is "certainly selling well these days," said President Larry Kwan. "The advance bookings are looking very promising. We're very optimistic about what it's going to be like in 2012 and moving onward."

Another operator specializing in China, Ritz Tours, of Alhambra, Calif., is also reporting growth, but its officials were more measured in their appraisal. Company President Martin Chan said that bookings are up over 2011 and that that's good news.

"The bad news is that the increase is not very much, only in the region of 15% to 20%," he cautioned. "But we're still somewhat happy; it's better than nothing."

Expanding horizons, or not

Ritz Tours put off introducing any new China tour product for 2012. "We did not come up with any new product because the market is not very strong yet," Chan said. "We've decided to wait."

By contrast, Pacific Delight Tours and Wendy Wu Tours both are extending their reach into new Chinese regions. The former, for example, is developing product themed around the Silk Road -- the ancient trade route that connected China with Europe, Africa and the Middle East -- and the mythical Shangri-La, said by some to be located in China's Yunnan Province.

Yunnan and sites associated with the Silk Road, which passed through what's now the far western autonomous region of Xinjiang, may be "a little out of the way," said Kwan, but Pacific Delight has tracked interest from "our repeat clients who now want to have a more adventurous visit to China."

"So we're working on those products right now," Kwan added, noting the firm will also continue to offer Tibet despite some politically driven scheduling issues.

"We've had Tibet for many years and it's very successful, [but] sometimes the government notifies us pretty late that we can't take people there, as in March of this year."

For her part, Wu has just launched a Tibet tour tailored specifically to her U.S. clients. When Wendy Wu Tours began offering American travelers its China product, originally developed for the U.K. and Australia markets, in September 2010, "we kept getting inquiries about whether we could please add Tibet to the tours," Wu said. So Wu began selling Tibet as an extension to existing tours; but, she said, extensions "are not as good a value as when you travel with a group."

New for this year, the resulting 15-night China and Tibet Discovery tour, priced from $4,990 per person, is "selling like hotcakes," Wu said. "We had to add a new departure and open more groups for it."

Looking ahead, Wu is interested in promoting attractions and activities in less popular or well-known secondary cities. For example, she hopes to promote Chongqing, where many passengers disembark from Yangtze River cruises and then head straight to the airport, as a custom-tailoring shopping destination.

"It's much cheaper and better quality than [tailoring in] Hong Kong, and you get better service," she said. Wu pointed to the growing number of business travelers opting to extend stays in China with vacations.

For his part, Chan at Ritz Tours has noted a narrowing booking window for China. "People always think they can always get deals at the last minute, but they don't remember that airlines lower airfares when there's more availability," he said. "The later clients book China, the higher the airfare rate they have to eventually pay."

For more information on travel to China, visit the China National Tourist Office website at www.cnto.org.  

For destination news and updates worldwide, follow Ken Kiesnoski on Twitter @kktravelweekly.

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