A child smiles as Chinese tourists to the United States check in at Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital International Airport on June 17, 2008. They were the first mainland tourist group to visit the country after the US allowed tour groups from the Chinese mainland. ZHAO JING / FOR CHINA DAILY
BEIJING - After more than a month of preparation and anticipation, 28-year-old Beijing resident Zhang Weiguang and his wife were thrilled to learn their dream of traveling to the United States would come true.
"Although we had to wait in a long line in front of the embassy to meet visa officials, it was worthwhile," Zhang told China Daily over the weekend.
Zhang values the tour not only as an extraordinary cultural experience, but also a good opportunity to buy luxury goods.
With tourist visas, the happy couple will knock around the US West Coast for a 10-day trip during the Spring Festival en route to famous tourist cities such as San Francisco, Los Angles and Las Vegas.
Yet the couple is just a small drop in the torrent of US-bound mainland tourists, who numbered more than 1 million in the first 11 months of last year.
"We estimate the number of US-bound tourists will exceed 1.2 million in 2010, with an annual growth rate of about 30 percent," said Jiang Yiyi, director of the International Tourism Development Institute at the China Tourism Academy.
According to Jiang, the US is currently the fourth most popular foreign country for mainland tourists, thanks to the Approved Destination Status agreement signed between the two countries in late 2007.
Under the agreement, mainland tourists can visit the US with less complicated visa processes. It also allows US destinations to market their tourism products in China and authorizes Chinese travel agencies to market and promote leisure group tours in the US.
Chen Yanyi, director of the tourism sector of Ctrip, a leading Chinese online travel agency, said that the agency's US-bound business has boomed after the agreement.
"Our packages to the US sold fairly well in 2010, along with a 100-percent increase in tourist numbers," he said.
The market is heating up even more after its neighbor, Canada, also obtained the Approved Destination Status and rolled out the carpet for Chinese tourists last year, he said.
According to Chen, the traditional routes in the US include trips to East and West Coast states and the offshore state of Hawaii.
However, more diversified tours are emerging to meet mainland travelers' needs, including shopping spree tours or tours connected with special events, such as Chinese New Year or NBA games.
Except for taking trips for sightseeing or leisure, Chinese tourists are renowned for their high purchasing power, a trend seen as a way to revive a US tourism industry hit by the financial crisis.
According to a report released by the World Tourism Organization last week, Chinese tourists spent $44 billion outside the country last year, putting them behind only Germany, the US and the UK in terms of international spending.
"In many US hotels, restaurants and shopping areas, Chinese language services are provided to facilitate mainland visitors, which is a big change," said Wang Ye, a staff member with the outbound tourism business of Beijing Tourism Group's International Travel & Tours.
Despite the loosened visa restrictions for mainland visitors, Chinese travel agencies want a more simplified visa process and a larger quota in order to match the ever-increasing demands of Chinese travelers.
"Mainland tourists still have to wait a long period to get a visa interview, sometimes two months ahead of the departure, which partly weakens their enthusiasm," Chen with Ctrip said.
In response, the consulate general of the US in Shanghai set up a pilot project for group visa interviews at the end of last year, which could shorten the time Chinese tourists require for visa applications.
"We are looking forward to more favorable visa policies," Wang Ye said.
(China Daily 01/19/2011 page2)