Tourism Bureaus Court Chinese Stars With Hope That Crowds Will Follow

    California, New Zealand, and Vancouver all hope that Chinese superstars as tourism ambassadors will help draw China's high-spending visitors.
    Jing Daily
    Mitch MoxleyAuthor
      Published   in Finance

    Gao Yuanyuan serves as an ambassador for California's tourism office. (Visit California)

    Tourism organizations from California to New Zealand are using the star power and social media reach of Chinese celebrities in an attempt to draw high-spending tourists from the mainland.

    Visit California has teamed with model and actress Gao Yuanyuan, Tourism New Zealand with actress and social media phenomenon Yao Chen, and Tourism Vancouver with Chinese-born, Vancouver-based singer Wanting Qu, all to capture of attention of Chinese travelers, who are exploring distant shores at historic rates. Last year, 83 million Chinese spent $102 billion abroad, overtaking Americans and Germans to become the world’s biggest tourism spenders, according to a report by the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Those figures are only expected to grow, and tourism bureaus around the world using increasingly creative methods to lure tourists from the mainland.

    For international tourism organizations, teaming up with celebrities—many of whom have followers on social media platforms numbering the tens of millions—offers the kind of access to Chinese consumers that would cost a fortune with traditional advertising campaigns. Gao Yuanyuan’s reach on social media was an appealing factor when Visit California selected her as brand ambassador, says Caroline Beteta, Visit California’s president and CEO. The Chinese star has more than 20 million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

    “We were looking for someone who could embody the California attitude and be an extension of our brand to engage the Chinese consumer market,” Beteta says. “It was important to select someone who could represent the growing Chinese market and the visitor profile—someone who was genuinely enthusiastic about experiencing all that California has to offer.” Visit California treated Ms. Gao and her family to a “California Dream Vacation”, filming a series of videos featuring stops at Universal Studios and Disneyland in the Los Angeles area and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, among other highlights.

    The deal with Gao is part of a larger campaign by Visit California to target mainland tourists. The official state tourism board, which opened offices in Beijing and Shanghai in 2008, will spend a total of $1.6 million this year to attract Chinese visitors. China ranks as the top overseas market for California with an estimated 718,000 visitors in 2012, an increase of 39 percent from the year before, according to preliminary data provided by Visit California. Chinese tourists stayed for an average of 10.6 days and spent $2,932 per visitor, higher than any other overseas market.

    Yao Chen in New Zealand for her wedding.

    Tourism New Zealand’s partnership with Chinese superstar Yao Chen has been a massive boon for the country’s tourism industry. The two parties formed a partnership in August 2011, aimed at promoting New Zealand as a luxury destination for holidays, weddings and honeymoons. Yao, who has some 52 million fans on Sina Weibo, has filmed a number of promotional videos in the country and appeared at a red carpet ceremony for the blockbuster The Hobbit, which was filmed in New Zealand.

    Last November, Yao was married in Queenstown, and photos of the lavish affair spread rapidly on Chinese social media. The wedding quickly became one of the most discussed topics on Weibo: forty million discussion items registered on Weibo for the wedding had “New Zealand” as a keyword, and there were close to 7,000 stories about the wedding in Chinese media. A similar advertising campaign would cost tens of millions of dollars, said Graham Budd, Destination Queenstown’s chief executive, in a report to city councilors.

    Tourism Vancouver announced in February it was teaming with Wanting Qu, a Chinese pop star who was born in China but moved to Vancouver as a teen. In June, the organization launched a video series and social media campaign. The first video featured Qu whale watching, picnicking on Blackcomb glacier, kayaking in the waters off Vancouver and walking across the city’s iconic Capilano suspension bridge – all to the tune of Qu’s 2012 single, “Life is Like A Song.” “We were looking for ways to break through the competitive clutter to get a message about Vancouver to an audience that would resonate with their interest in new experiences and destinations,” says Stephen Pearce, Tourism Vancouver’s vice president of leisure travel. “Wanting is sincere, authentic, and genuinely passionate about Vancouver. And that passion comes through in her videos and social media features.”

    Tourism Vancouver simultaneously launched a Chinese language website that offered Qu’s fans a chance to win a trip to the city to meet the singer. An estimated 170,000 Chinese tourists are expected to visit Vancouver this year, according to Tourism Vancouver. “Our projection is for 17 percent growth over 2012, but already we have grown by 25 percent year to date,” Pearce says. “At this rate, China will be our second largest international market, after the U.S., by 2014.”

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