California adapting to rising tide of tourists from China - now 1.8m a year
More than 1.8 million Chinese visitors each year spells big business for US
Nearly two dozen Chinese tourists descended from a white shuttle bus for an afternoon of shopping at one of southern California's signature upscale malls.
One of them discussed a plum-coloured, US$610 Prada handbag with a salesman at South Coast Plaza, while fellow visitors on the 10-day tour strolled through the mall, each with a single child in tow, after a morning spent whale watching.
It's a common scene in Orange county, which is doing what it can to attract buses filled with Chinese tourists. To make them feel at home, it accepts China's UnionPay card and provides Putonghua-speaking salespeople. The mall's shops and tourist spots offer maps and brochures in Chinese, and hotels serve congee for breakfast as companies try to entice Chinese tourists to visit the state - and spend their money.
Chinese tourism to the US has soared since the nations agreed in 2007 to promote tourism. More than 1.8 million Chinese visited last year, a threefold rise in the past five years. By 2018, more than four million visitors will be from China, says the US Department of Commerce.
California, the number-one destination, holds particular allure because of its proximity to China, theme parks and sunny weather. Nearly half of all Chinese tourists visit the state.
Haybina Hao, of the National Tour Association, which ensures US-based tour operators are able to receive Chinese tour groups under the 2007 agreement, said: "Until they've visited USA, they don't feel they've done their international travel yet," she said. "They need to see it, put themselves in the photograph, so they can prove they've done this."
During their travels, they each spend an average of US$5,400 - 21 per cent more than the average spent by all overseas tourists.
"We see tremendous potential," said Nick Hentschel, vice-president of AmericanTours International (ATI). Today China formed 15 per cent of its business compared with virtually none a little more than five years ago.
China was the only country where ATI, which originally focused on tourism from Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, had opened a local office. "But it is cutthroat," he said.
At first, tours from China included mostly older people - many of whom had saved up for years - but now many middle-aged parents brought their single child, and school groups of teenagers visited each summer.
Many tourists are eager to visit California's Disneyland Resort and take photographs at landmarks such as the Hollywood sign and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. They also enjoy trying American foods - steak is the big favourite - and taking advantage of cheaper prices to buy many designer goods.
"It's a shopping paradise," said Cici Chen, 35, of Shanghai, at Disney California Adventure.
Many Chinese tourists see the US while seated on big tour buses, while some travel in smaller groups, or rent cars to explore on their own. Others come in big groups, or on company-sponsored trips; a 7,000-strong contingent held a two-day meeting in southern California this year, then fanned out across the region. A group more than twice that size would visit California next year, said Ed Fuller, president of the Orange County Visitors Association.
Zhang Huan, 42, was among those touring Disney California Adventure with his wife, mother-in-law and 11-year-old son. He had paid US$20,000 for the family's first US trip. One stop Zhang planned to make with his son was to a university campus.
"If he can study hard, he can go to Stanford," Zhang said.