Last updated: 09:26 PM ET, Fri February 12 2016

Inside the Meteoric Rise of Chinese Inbound Tourism

Tour Operator | National Tour Association (NTA) | David Cogswell | February 09, 2016

Inside the Meteoric Rise of Chinese Inbound Tourism

PHOTO: Haybina Hao, NTA’s vice president of international development, with Chinese tour operators in New Orleans. (Photo by David Cogswell)

The National Tour Association’s recent promotion of Haybina Hao to vice president of international development is a reflection of the fact that Hao is one of the most valuable members of the NTA staff now. That is due in large part to her overseeing the China market, a tourism market with growth potential that can’t be compared with that of any other source market.

NTA has been developing the Chinese inbound market since soon after a memorandum of understanding was signed in 2007 between the Chinese and U.S. governments, which led to NTA being appointed to take the responsibility of overseeing Chinese inbound tourism and making sure Chinese citizens traveled with reliable tour operators.

The role of NTA in the Chinese travel market has grown and evolved over the years, and the growth of the market itself is staggering. The influx of Chinese tourists to the U.S. is going to transform our world significantly. Nearly every part of the economy that is affected by the long arm of tourism is going to feel the change.

Major hotel chains have been gearing up for years, preparing to adapt their offerings to Chinese tourists, finding Mandarin-speaking people to hire as emissaries to the new wave of tourists, studying their preferences so they may better compete for their business.

Tourism from China, the world’s most populous country with nearly 1.4 billion people, has grown meteorically, starting from practically nothing only a decade or so ago. In 2006, the National Trade and Tourism Office estimated that there were 320,000 Chinese visitors. By 2013 the number had more than quadrupled to 1.8 million.

It began with business travelers. Very few leisure travelers were allowed to travel to the U.S. before the Chinese government signed the 2007 memorandum with NTA that would ensure security for Chinese citizens within the U.S. Then leisure travel began with a trickle that rapidly grew into a torrent.

READ MORE: Up-and-Coming Tourist Destinations Court Chinese Travelers

In 2007 the U.S. government estimated that by 2011 there would be 578,000 Chinese tourists in the U.S. They were more than 90 percent off. The actual number by 2011 was 1.09 million.

In 2010 China was not in the top 10 inbound tourism markets for the U.S. In 2011 it entered the chart at number nine. It grew rapidly in 2012-14 to nearly 2.2 million Chinese visitors, a 21 percent increase over 2013. By 2015 China was the sixth largest inbound market.

By 2019, China is projected by the U.S. National Travel and Tourism Office to become the third largest inbound market, bringing some 4.9 million visitors to U.S. destinations. By 2021 the U.S. government projects 7.3 million Chinese tourists, with China becoming the number two source market for the U.S., second only to Canada.

Studying the Trends

To shed some light on the meaning of this incoming tsunami of tourism, at the NTA’s annual convention in Atlanta last week, Xiang (Robert) Li, professor and Washburn senior research fellow at Temple University, gave a presentation called “Understanding the Chinese Market” based on research into the market conducted through a partnership with NTA.

Chinese tourism in this the Year of the Monkey, Li said, is “changing the face of tourism.” Changes that are taking place now will no doubt accelerate this trend. One such change is growing air accessibility for the Chinese. The gateway cities in China are expanding. Also likely to blow the top off the current numbers is the recent extension of the validity of visas for Chinese to 10 years.  

Li shared a number of trends and preferences that have been revealed through market research. Some of the results may be surprising to Americans.

More than 56 percent of Chinese visitors were born after the 1980s. They are college educated. Many have young children. Sixty percent are married with children and 60 percent have already traveled abroad. They are tech-savvy and they are interested in authentic experiences.

Li called this new wave of tourism “Chinese Tourism 2.0”.

Among this new generation of tourists, the U.S. is rated the number one “aspirational destination,” in answer to the questions “Where would you go?” or “Where will you go?”

Since surveys of 2007, “having fun” has risen from the sixth reason for traveling to the U.S. to the number two position.  

For those Chinese who said they were not interested in traveling to the U.S., the reasons given were that it is too expensive or too far.

READ MORE: Chinese Inbound Tourism Will Change Our World

In comparing expectations to actual experience, 61 percent of visitors said the experience of travel in the U.S. was as good as they expected, 25 percent said it exceeded their expectations and 14 percent said it fell below their expectations.

The Chinese visitors were not impressed with the group tours offered to them, or with the knowledge of their guides. They found most of the tourist attractions to be satisfactory, but they were not impressed with the food, finding much of it to be what they consider to be unhealthy. They enjoyed the shopping, but did not like way they were treated by the immigration services or the customs officials.

Telecommunications fell below their expectations. In China they get free Wi-Fi everywhere, but not in the States. Most are still not confident in their English language capabilities, so translation and Mandarin-speaking representatives will be important to those working with that market.

Among the things they liked about America were the scenery, the air quality and the friendliness of the locals.

They found the infrastructure and the facilities disappointing, particularly in the hotels. They expected more from the world’s number one superpower.

Li said the growth trajectory is expected to level off over the next several years and change from exponential growth to stable growth.

We are now witnessing the first part of a wave that will no doubt have broad-reaching, transformative effects on not only the U.S. economy, but culture itself.

Whether you consider it a curse or a blessing, we certainly do live in interesting times.

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