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HIA seminar spotlights benefits of attracting Chinese tourists

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Jack Lok, left, and Chris Spring, principals with the hospitality firm China NiHao, discuss strategies to attract more Chinese tourists to the region during a seminar today at the Vineyard at Hershey, sponsored by Harrisburg International Airport.
Jack Lok, left, and Chris Spring, principals with the hospitality firm China NiHao, discuss strategies to attract more Chinese tourists to the region during a seminar today at the Vineyard at Hershey, sponsored by Harrisburg International Airport. - (Photo / )

Chinese tourists like petting zoos, gun ranges, castles in upstate New York and the Amish.

Of course, that's in addition to beaches, Broadway, Las Vegas, shopping and many of the common and uncommon attractions that draw tourists from near and far.

The challenge is to put midstate destinations squarely on the radar as growing numbers of affluent Chinese tourists head for U.S. shores., hospitality experts told local tourism officials on Tuesday during a seminar hosted by Harrisburg International Airport.

"It's astounding how deep the Chinese tourism industry goes into America," said Michael Boyd, founder of Boyd Group International, an aviation advisory group. Boyd Group has created China NiHao, a team focused on helping communities capitalize on this growing segment of the hospitality sector.

"Ni hao" means "Hello" in Mandarin Chinese.

And the greeting will become only more relevant here. More than 3 million Chinese tourists are expected to visit the U.S. this year, a number that is expected to double in the next five years, said Tim Edwards. HIA's executive director.

While business travel remains important, it is dropping as a relative share of all Chinese visits as holiday travel grows, Boyd said. In 2008, just 99,000 Chinese visitors came to this country as tourists. Last year, more than about a million did, he said.

As for HIA, it has yet to develop as a destination for Chinese leisure travelers, officials said, but does have a small core of business travelers heading to and from the Asian nation.

Right now, that number is perhaps 10 people a day, airport officials said. But Shanghai already is the fourth most popular international destination for HIA travel, ahead of London, Boyd noted, connecting at airports such as Washington's Dulles, Chicago's O'Hare and Toronto in Canada.

But so far, nearly all Chinese tourists arrive in this region on bus trips from other regions.

Tourism boom

Among the nation's Chinese tourists, spending per U.S. trip increased from $2,600 in 2008 to $13,000 in 2015, Boyd said, with lower U.S. taxes on luxury goods driving much of that spending.

Jack Lok, one of China NiHao's principals, said the top-tier U.S. destinations for Chinese visitors are Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Boston, Las Vegas and Niagara Falls. Philadelphia tops their second-tier list.

Lok explained that central Pennsylvania faces some of the same challenges as communities he worked with in upstate New York - places between New York City and Niagara Falls that might not be household words here or in China, but that have become popular destinations for Chinese travelers. Such destinations have included Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame; Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman's rural upstate birthplace; and Boldt Castle in the Thousand Islands.

Boyd noted how a colleague even brought a group of Chinese tourists to visit the small city of Utica, N.Y., a former industrial town near some of those attractions. 

"They loved it," Boyd said. "The key is making visitors comfortable anywhere."

Part of that, he said, is reaching out to Chinese in their home markets, before they arrive, through social media, websites and other advertising platforms.

Language matters

But language is among the most important elements to increasing the comfort level in any setting, Boyd said. While more young Chinese speak English, signage, brochures and other information in Chinese help put those visitors at ease, he added.

How well does the American travel and tourism sector do that overall? The answer seems to be not very, and that includes some of the biggest airports in the nation.

Boyd, Lok and colleague Chris Spring explained that despite the growing tide of Chinese travelers, information in their native language is rarely available at big airports, and when it is, it may not be translated very well.

And that makes Chinese tourists less likely to connect from big hubs to interior airports, instead focusing their trips on areas around the hub.

Spring said he recently approached the information desk at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — busiest in the nation, and in the world, by some measures — and asked if they had any information about the facility in Chinese.

An employee ruffled through a folder and responded by referring him to a Chinese restaurant in the airport's food court, Spring said.

"We need more language support for Chinese tourists," Boyd added.

At the local level, that can include making a Chinese-speaking concierge available at hotels with large numbers of Chinese guests. If a permanent employee isn't available, one of the nation's 450,000 Chinese college students may be available for part-time work, he suggested.

The Corning Glass Works in New York state is another attraction China NiHao has worked with, and their approaches bear watching, the experts said.

Among them are promotional videos, in Chinese, shown on tour buses before groups arrive at the site. The videos offer information on the attraction itself as well as items available for sale in the gift shop.

Deep interest

Once Chinese guests have been attracted to a region, their interest in American culture is widespread and deep, the experts said — and they typically want to bring home souvenirs that reflect some genuine element of Americana.

In Central Pennsylvania, Amish culture has proven a draw, while Hershey-related tourism is a big favorite, attracting hundreds of buses each year.

Officials recognize that the potential for growth exists as more Chinese travelers come to the U.S., spurred by improving incomes and a simplified visa process.

U.S. vacations are no longer a "once-in-a-lifetime trip" for Chinese nationals, Lok said, and many return frequently.

"They want to see more than just Broadway," Boyd said, advising regional destinations to be ready.

"You have to earn your Chinese traffic every day."

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Roger DuPuis

Roger DuPuis

Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, health care, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at rdupuis@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @rogerdupuis2.

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