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After a 13-hour flight from Shanghai, Aileen Zhang is fatigued but eager to begin her first trip abroad.
She lands at San Francisco International Airport, retrieves her luggage from the carousel and passes through US Customs. Then it's off to the car rental counter to pick up the car she reserved online from her home in China.
Software engineer Aileen Zhang tours the US in her rented Chevrolet automobile. [Photo/China Daily]
"It's very popular among our generation to travel around by renting vehicles," said Zhang, a software engineer in her late 20s. "Travel agencies might give people well-organized schedules, but what I want is a leisurely trip that's more free - not to rush from one tourist spot to another."
During July, she stopped in Los Angeles and other cities along California's Pacific Coast Highway before driving inland to Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming before ending up at Yellowstone National Park, which straddles three states.
Tourism from China to the US has been on the rise since 2007, when the State Department relaxed its rules to make it easier for Chinese citizens to get short-term visas. The trend is expected to continue: About 1.1 million Chinese visited the US in 2011, and the number is projected to reach 3.2 million visitors in 2016, according to the Commerce Department's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.
"There is an explosion of travelers coming from China to the US," said Skip Hull, vice-president of CIC Research Inc, which conducts surveys on behalf of the federal government and private companies.
Washington's increase in the number of visa slots available to applicants in China this year is also helping push numbers to record highs, including scores of younger Chinese who prefer to travel by rental car, Hull said.
"Similar to the 1980s and Japan, there is a huge volume of independent travelers from China visiting the US," he said. "We think that, over time, there will be many more younger Chinese traveling on their own instead of depending on travel agencies."
Among travelers to the US who rent cars, the top three countries of origin in 2011 were Britain, Germany and Japan, according to a report by the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration. China didn't appear in the report because its sample size was less than 400 renters, but Hull is sure the number will jump, especially given the "motorized generation" of Chinese in their 20s and early 30s.
"It would be lame to travel around the US other than by driving," said Yang Liu, a 28-year-old from Beijing who is planning a trip to the US in September. "There are so many desirable places in the US, and traveling by yourself, by car, is a good way to get around and see the real America."
Yang, who hopes to experience a "typical American lifestyle" during her visit, said, "The last thing I want to do is follow tour guides who organize everything while I just take photos in arranged places with people from my home country."
China's younger generation "doesn't share the same cultural history as the older generations in terms of automobiles", said Hull. The country's fast-growing auto industry acclimated Chinese youth to driving and cars from an early age, instilling a desire to explore the world "on their own".