Beyond-the-Gateway Tours are Popular, as are U.S. National Parks: Stefan Merkl, president of Explore Marketing, a San Francisco-based company that represents Touroperatorland.com, owned NAJ Media & Events—it publishes the Inbound Report—and other organizations, recently from a sales mission to China where he had the opportunity for a number of one-on-one meetings with Chinese tour operators and others in the travel trade. His discussions resulted in the following observations that revolved about four major areas of conversation.
Where Does the USA Stand as a Long-haul Destination?
—Europe still sees larger volumes of Chinese travelers than the United States, and also is perceived as the better FIT destination due to the excellent public transit system.
—However, the United States continues to grow in popularity as a destination for long-haul travel, particularly as it is considered to be fairly safe.
—This is especially true since the terrorist attacks that hit Europe since last fall, has caused many Chinese travelers to reconsider their travel plans and travel to the United States instead.
—Although Donald Trump is widely seen as an ill fit for the U.S. presidency by the Chinese public, I was told that people in China don’t try to voice opinions in regards to political matters, and hence their travel decisions to come to the USA may only get impacted minimally by a potential Trump presidency.
—Many operators that traditionally have focused on Southeast Asian (short-haul destinations) and Europe are now adding the United States into their product mix.
What Mix of Travelers to the USA are Group? FIT?
It is true that FIT travel from China to the United States is on the rise for a variety of reasons:
—Safety concerns due to the terror attacks in Europe caused some FIT travelers to switch destinations and consider the USA instead.
—Due to the 10-year visa (in October of 2014, the validity period of visas for travel between China and the U.S. was extended from one to ten years), second and third-time visitors have become increasingly familiarized and comfortable with traveling in the USA independently.
—Some tour operators are adjusting their product offerings by adding “Semi FIT” programs that let their customers explore cities as FITs and then transport them as groups to the next city.
—Yet, leisure groups still dominate outbound travel from China to the United States and will continue to do so in the long-run for several reasons:
—The United States continues to be a fairly new destination for most Chinese travelers, so there is almost an unlimited supply of new leisure group participants.
—The majority of people that can afford to travel to the United States is an older demographic that may not be fluent in English and as a result will be hesitant to travel independently.
—Younger travelers that prefer to vacation on their own, may not be able to afford a destination like the United States until they built up a nest egg.
—Group itineraries tend to be very competitively priced.
—While at Ctrip, I was told their sales of FIT programs has increased by 50 percent from last year to this year, while their group business has increased by 15 percent.
—However, the volume of FIT versus leisure group clients is still comparatively small, so most of the companies I met with still focus on leisure groups.
Within the USA, What Are The Favorite Destinations of Travelers? Are They Changing? Are Travelers Choosing Non-Gateway Itineraries?
—The main gateway cities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, continue to be the favorite destinations for travelers from China, as they are the most familiar with these cities and also function as the starting points for leisure group itineraries to surrounding destinations. These are tours that most first-time visitors experience:
—A common East Coast itinerary: New York-Philadelphia-Washington DC-Hershey-Niagara-possibly Boston-New York.
—A common West Coast Itinerary: Los Angeles-Las Vegas-Grand Canyon-Yosemite-San Francisco-Los Angeles
—Second time visitors, whose numbers are increasing due to the 10-year visa – may add destinations such as the following:
San Diego, due to Seaworld and the San Diego Zoo; Seattle due to the improved flight network from China; Texas, which seems to benefit from an improved flight network and vast visibility in the market; and destinations that are close to gateway cities and can be experienced in day trips or overnight stays (for example, San Francisco: e.g. Napa & Sonoma).
—FIT travelers, which tend to be younger or come from a more educated, upper class background, seem quite independent and comfortable traveling on their own.
—One customer in the travel trade even told me about her attending Burning Man (an annual event in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada) this year-and she loved it. So there’s definitely a sense of adventure.
—Self-Drive itineraries are becoming increasingly popular to destinations along the West Coast, the National Parks, along the Northeast corridor and Texas.
Aside from Shopping, What Activities Are Most Popular? Sightseeing? National Parks? Historic and Cultural Tours?
—Dining and experiences that involve food are very popular amongst FIT travelers.
—The USA’s National Parks are hugely popular among Chinese travelers, and Yellowstone seems to be at the heart of it all this year, in part due to marketing the 100-year anniversary of the National Park system.
—Theme Parks and themed attractions that offer safe, family-fun and animal encounters are very popular choices as well. Seaworld, for example, seems to be a main reason why Chinese travelers go to San Diego.
—Hop-on Hop-off tours and city tours on land and water are increasingly popular amongst FIT travelers that spend several days on their own in cities.
—Educational travel is very important for many Chinese families that are looking for universities to send their kids to.