US travel industry to Chinese tourists: What trade war?

WASHINGTON (AP) – Washington, DC, has dangled hotel discounts tied to the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Arizona has promoted its outdoor attractions to draw visitors during another popular Chinese holiday.

San Francisco has expanded its social media presence on Chinese apps to market year-round travel to millennial tourists.

Across the country, the United States (US) tourism industry is trying to counter one of the casualties of the trade war with China that is still raging despite this month’s temporary truce: A drop in the flow of affluent Chinese visitors to the US. As the conflict has dragged on for 15 months with no meaningful breakthrough, the travel industry is trying to minimise the damage.

It has good reason. An enlarged Chinese middle class has become a lucrative market for the US travel industry. Close to three million Chinese tourists visited the US last year. And they spent liberally: An estimated average of USD6,700 per person per trip – exceeding the average spending of international tourists by more than 50 per cent – according to the US Travel Association.

Concerns among US tourism agencies have grown as Beijing has warned that Chinese travellers to the US may face harassment. Compounding the problem is increased difficulty in obtaining US visas.

The number of visitors from China dropped nearly four per cent in the first half of this year after a nearly six per cent drop in 2018. More broadly, the US share of the global travel market has slipped in the past year, and travel and hospitality groups blame the trade conflicts and intensified competition from rival countries. To close the gap, they’ve urged the government to extend funding for the US national tourism marketing agency and to work more closely with overseas trade fairs and tour groups. At the same time, tourism marketing agencies for states and cities are hedging their bets by intensifying their outreach to countries other than China. Utah and Los Angeles, among others, are trying to expand their presence in nations like India, whose large and youthful middle class is seen as a potentially rich source of tourist dollars.

Yet there is no easy way to replace a drop in Chinese tourism. Some US tourism agencies say they worry that Chinese travellers feel unwelcome in the country under the Trump administration. Warnings from Beijing about travelling to the US have likely reinforced that view.

“With the trade war, with some of the travel warnings, with some of our visa challenges that we’ve had, we’ve seen a little bit of a dip in Chinese visitors,” said senior official at Destination DC, the city’s tourism marketing office Theresa Belpulsi.

A Chinese tourist takes pictures of t-shirts at a tourism kiosk in Washington. PHOTO: AP