Although last week’s state visit to the UK by Chinese president Xi Jinping (and the increasingly buddy-buddy relationship between the two countries) have been getting the headlines at the moment, a recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Commerce indicates that the United States will remain a leading beneficiary of outbound Chinese investment and tourism in the year ahead.
2016 will mark the launch of the “U.S.-China Tourism Year,” recently announced by Presidents Obama and Xi to celebrate last year’s reciprocal visa extension effort (which greatly boosted Chinese tourism figures in the United States) and help “expand and shape” U.S.-China travel and tourism.
According to official U.S. tourism statistics, China already ranks second in visitor spending to and within the United States, with around $24 billion spent on travel and tourism last year. An estimated 2.2 million Chinese travelers visited the United States in 2014, accounting for around 3 percent of total international arrivals—a 21 percent increase over 2013. This momentum carried over to 2015, with 561,916 mainland Chinese arrivals recorded in the first quarter of the year, a 19 percent increase year-on-year.
For reference, the UK expects around 200,000 Chinese arrivals for all of 2015.
But no longer are Chinese travelers only coming to the United States for packaged trips to the Liberty Bell or Hollywood sign (then onward to the outlet mall). A fast-growing number of tourists, particularly those hailing from China’s notoriously smog-choked urban areas, are heading to the United States in droves to explore the country’s natural side. According to official figures, 40 percent of Chinese travelers to the United States say they visited a national park while in the country.
So what does this mean for the US-China Tourism Year? It means more events and activities—many put together jointly by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA)—to expand market access and boost visitor experience on both sides. At a more concrete level, that means improving the speed and consistency of visa processing (around 2.5 million visas have been processed for Chinese travelers since November 2014), and a better border entry process, with more and better Chinese-language materials and training on the U.S. side.
Although it comes across as somewhat bland and clinical, the U.S.-China Tourism Year will likely be good for business for U.S. tourism destinations, retailers, and others. The fact is that Chinese tourists to the United States are not just coming in greater numbers, they’re going to more places and engaging in a wider range of activities. This means that tourist destinations from Salt Lake City to San Antonio and Saint Petersburg should be doing everything possible to promote themselves to potential travelers while they’re still in research mode, and retailers, malls, and hotels need to have at least a basic level of “China-Readiness” to give these travelers a positive experience when they’re on the ground.
Renee Hartmann is the co-founder of China Luxury Advisors.