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Travel business aims to grow exports, tourism, camaraderie

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Jeff Ji, left, and Wayne Block co-founded Knighthawk Tours LLC, a Chester County-based travel company that specializes in Harley-Davidson motorcycle tours throughout China and the United States. The men depart May 6 for a 13-day trip dubbed Ride to Confucius that will take tour riders to nine metropolitan areas and six provinces in China.  Photo/Amy Spangler
Jeff Ji, left, and Wayne Block co-founded Knighthawk Tours LLC, a Chester County-based travel company that specializes in Harley-Davidson motorcycle tours throughout China and the United States. The men depart May 6 for a 13-day trip dubbed Ride to Confucius that will take tour riders to nine metropolitan areas and six provinces in China. Photo/Amy Spangler

An eastern Pennsylvania travel business co-founded by a midstate businessman is coinciding its busiest year of touring yet in the United States and China with the 110th anniversary of Harley-Davidson Inc.

Chester County-based Knighthawk Tours LLC has organized a trip to China for American riders this month and two trips for Chinese riders through parts of the United States later this year.

The first, referred to as the Ride to Confucius, will take more than a dozen riders to China on a sojourn that is part motorcycle ride and part general tour, Knighthawk Tours President Wayne Block said.

It is the second such Ride to Confucius, named because it visits the home province of the famous Chinese philosopher. The first ride occurred in 2008.

The company also will have its third and fourth U.S. tours in 2013. The other two occurred in 2011 and 2012.

This year, Chinese riders will start in Pennsylvania and ride south, where destinations include a stop at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, said Jeff Ji, the company's CEO.

The ride will move on toward St. Louis, then turn north to Chicago and Milwaukee, where Harley is based, for the company's official 110th anniversary festivities, Ji said.

Another group of Chinese riders will come to Milwaukee first and then ride a more northern track back to Pennsylvania before departing back to China, he said.

Block founded Block Business Systems, which grew to two locations in the York and Harrisburg areas before Block sold them several years ago and retired, he said. Ji's company, U-Combination Technology USA Inc., provided the computer systems Block sold to clients, Block said.

Along the way, they became good friends.

Around 2005, Ji said, he was contacted by officials because a governmental delegation was coming from China to visit.

Ji, who is from China, recalled that the officials asked him to suggest places to take the delegation, then he accompanied them and served as an interpreter.

One of Ji's ideas for a destination was the Harley-Davidson factories in York County.

Once there, a high-ranking provincial official at first was interested in bringing Harley-Davidson manufacturing to China, Ji said.

But after some explanation about how important being made in America is to Harley's brand, the interest shifted to exposing people in China to the product, he said.

At first, Ji said, he saw the touring effort as a way to help increase American exports to China, but it's also become about fostering camaraderie among riders on opposite sides of the world.

On the China-to-America tour side, the goal also is to help grow tourism from China to the United States, Ji said.

The 2011 and 2012 tours included a lot of time spent in Pennsylvania, and much of it was in rural and scenic areas such as the northern tier, he said.

"They not only ride," Ji said. "They purchase a lot."

Pulling off the first Ride to Confucius made Ji admittedly nervous.

But the tour through Shandong Province had police escorts, and the support and hospitality that riders received was great, he said.

"We were like celebrities," Ji said.

Back then, there seemed to be very few Harley-Davidson riders in China, he said. But for the tour this spring, the group expects to have many Chinese riders, Ji said.

On the first Ride to Confucius, the interest from the public was huge, Block said. There is a large attraction in China to all things Western, particularly quintessential American brands, he said.

"You would have thought we were showing them electricity for the first time, because they had never seen (Harley motorcycles) before," Block said.

Harley does not release sales figures for each country, but its number of independent dealerships in China has risen significantly in the past several years, said John Wheeler, international spokesman for the company.

Just the second dealership in China opened in 2008, and this spring the 11th opened, he said.

And in the wider Asia Pacific sales region, Harley registered its largest percentage sales gain of any region in the world during the first quarter this year, according to company statements.

One of the first things a family rising to the middle class in China tends to buy is a small motorcycle to get back and forth to work or for other utilitarian purposes, Wheeler said.

Harley is working to capitalize on this predisposition to motorcycles by advocating them as leisure vehicles for people looking to escape their everyday lives, he said.

Today, there are six Harley Owners Group chapters in China, and the country will host the fifth national HOG rally there this month, Wheeler said.

The Ride to Confucius also has the rally on its itinerary, Block said.

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey covers York County, agribusiness, energy and environment, and workforce issues. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at brentb@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @brentburkey.

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