Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 October, 2008, 12:00am

Shanghai-born entrepreneur David Jin thinks of himself as a 'developer of destinations', having built up his US$7 million, Las Vegas-based tourism business over 15 years. Last year saw the completion of his most ambitious project to date - a horse shoe-shaped cantilevered glass walkway jutting 21 metres over the rim of the Grand Canyon, which visitors can pay to walk on for an unrivalled view of the bottom of the canyon, 1,200 metres below.

It took nine years - six of which were spent convincing the Hualapai tribe to let him build the Grand Canyon Skywalk on a piece of their 400,000-hectare property - and millions of dollars to realise his vision. Jin and the tribe already had a partnership, having developed a helicopter ride from the top of the canyon to the bottom, and a boat tour along the Colorado River, through tribal land.

'The tribe deserves the utmost respect,' Jin says. 'Allowing outsiders to develop tours on sacred land is a delicate matter; but the alternative [for income] is setting up casinos, which we see has ended badly for other tribes. On my end, the patience and hard work has paid off.'

When Jin left Shanghai to seek his fortune in 1987, he was an ambitious 25-year-old. 'When I graduated from secondary school in Shanghai, I competed with 230,000 people for one of 50,000 spots in local universities and technical colleges. I ended up studying garment manufacturing.'

After he finished trade school, Jin set off for the United States to learn English, about which his family had mixed feelings. His grandmother said, 'Go have a look and if you don't like it, come straight back.'

'But in my mind, I wanted to try my best - not give up,' Jin recalls. 'And when I got here, I didn't have enough money to go back anyway - it was all about survival.'

He landed in San Francisco but was in Las Vegas within two weeks, 'because class credits there cost a fraction of California prices'.

To support himself while he studied, Jin found a job as busboy at a Chinese restaurant that catered to tour groups. The workaholic within was unleashed and before two months had elapsed, he had quit school to work full time, eventually moving up to management.

His first venture in the tourism industry was with a partner who 'donated' all the firm's money to casinos; so, in 1993, Jin struck out on his own, with Oriental Tours. The company caters to tourists from all corners; about 10 per cent come from Greater China.

Jin and his wife of 12 years have properties around the US but home is in Las Vegas. 'We live very close to the golf club, where I'm probably the only member who doesn't play.'

Jin is unperturbed by the economic recession. 'In terms of my creative, entrepreneurial spirit, I am American; but when it comes to money matters, I'm very Chinese: I spend the cash I have instead of living on credit; I don't play the stock market, nor would I ever allow my kids to; I've never sold a company and in the long run that has proven to give greater returns.'