The news this past weekend that nine Chinese students returning to the United States to resume their studies at Arizona State University were detained at Los Angeles International Airport, then denied entry and sent back to China, sent a shiver throughout U.S. educational institutions, as China sends more students to America, by far, than any other nation. In the 2017/18 school year, the most recent for which data are available, China sent almost 351,000 students, or a full one-third (33.2 percent) of the world total of 1.01 million. Students and their families are the linchpin of a lucrative family travel market, as parents, grandparents and an occasional sibling will accompany a student on his or her trip to the United States to tour a campus or to enroll.
The action at LAX coincided with the imposition of an additional 15 percent in tariffs (up from 10 percent) on most goods from China beginning September 1, as the U.S. and China conduct an ongoing trade war.
Discussion of the student-driven travel was just one of the subjects that took place during a webinar last week sponsored by Dragon Trail Interactive, a global digital marketing agency that focuses on increasing Chinese business for tour and travel organizations.
Held before the detention of the Arizona State students, yet before the imposition of the new U.S. tariff increases, the session featured and illustrated relatively new data that provide some logic for last year’s 5.7 percent decline in visits to the U.S. by Chinese travelers, as well as another decline of 3.1 percent in visitor traffic, year-on-year, for the first half of 2019.
Along the way, it became clear, once again, that issues related obtaining a visa in order to visit the United States are of paramount interest for the Chinese traveling public, as well as for travel agents and tour operators.
Fewer Visas: The graph below shows that the number of visas issues to Chinese travelers has decline three years in a row. It should be noted, however, that U.S. visas became valid for a period of 10 years, starting at the end of 2014 so returning visa applicants no longer have to do so every year. Yet, there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of first-time travelers to the U.S. As a result, the decline in visa applications suggests less enthusiasm for visiting the USA.
Then, too, as Richard Champley, senior research analyst and program manager for the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Travel and Tourism Office (NTTO) pointed out, the past two years experienced a 14 month freeze in U.S. State Department staff who conduct visa interview, an action which increased wait times for those seeking an interview. (Tables below furnished by Dragon Trail)
Visa Application Rejections: No issue seems to have dominated any dialogue on U.S.-China travel as much as the number of visa applications that are rejected by the U.S. State Department. The chart below indicates that the percentage of rejections was headed toward 18 percent by the end of 2018. And all indications are that it will easily exceed that this year, as various sources have told INBOUND that it has been as high as 40 percent or more in some instances.
Dragon Trail presenters at the seminar sounded what has become a familiar refrain—one that is being stressed more and more as the discussion over visa rejection becomes more intense. And that is that the travel trade has to increase and amplify their efforts to make travel consumers away of the potential obstacles that exist for travelers to the U.S.
For the B2B community (tour operators): Whether they are applying for visas on behalf of clients, or working with clients who apply for their own visas, giving travel agents training on visa applications will make the process smoother and minimize rejections.
For the B2C sector (travel agents): Make sure that detailed, easy-to-follow instructions are available in Chinese. Information about requirements and updates to the visa application process can be shared on social media channels, too.
Lift Capacity: While its direct correlation to any decrease in traffic to the U.S. from China is not something that is readily apparent, it is not implausible to suggest that the reduction in capacity by U.S. carriers last year may have had a bearing on the matter—even if the lift capacity of Chinese carriers to the U.S. from China increased.
The Profile of the Chinese Traveler: NTTO’s Champley took the time to note that his agency has a wealth of new information regarding travelers from China, which is based on the Survey of International Air Travelers. Everything from one’s purpose of traveler to the size of the travel party are included. To access this information, go to: https://travel.trade.gov/outreachpages/inbound.general_information.inbound_overview.asp. Once there, click on the link for China, and you will be able to access the information.