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Chris Jones

China's Visitor Market Touted

17 December 2003

LAS VEGAS -- Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn speaks Tuesday at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas during the annual Governor's Conference on Tourism. The governor praised the state's efforts to diversify its tourism industry.

Nevada's tourism industry must continue to expand its offerings and reach out to diverse markets that range from outdoor enthusiasts to residents of the world's most populous nation, the state government's top two officials said Tuesday in Las Vegas.

Speaking at the general session of the Governor's Conference on Tourism at Caesars Palace, Gov. Kenny Guinn and Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt each praised Nevada's continuing efforts to supplement its gaming-based core with nongaming amenities such as shopping, dining and outdoor recreation.

Although both expressed faith in the state's 2-year-old "Adventure" campaign designed to lure outdoor enthusiasts to Nevada, Hunt spent most of her 30-minute speech touting the huge possibilities of China.

"I can't overstate the significance of China's potential as a visitor market for Nevada," Hunt said.

In mid-October, Hunt and Nevada Commission on Tourism Executive Director Bruce Bommarito led an approximately 20-member delegation of state tourism, hotel and private industry representatives on a 10-day tour through Beijing, Hong Kong, Macau and Shanghai.

Hunt said she found modern cities rife with elements of Western culture such as Starbucks Coffee, MTV and the Rat Pack-era music of Frank Sinatra. She said that up to 10 percent of the country's approximately 1.4 billion residents can now afford to travel overseas, which has positioned China as Nevada's "newest and most-modern market" for tourism.

"It's OK if people want to talk about new Indian gaming resorts," Hunt said. "We've got the whole global market to tap into."

Following her prepared remarks, Hunt said obstacles must still be overcome before hordes of Chinese tourists can visit the state, most notably visa restrictions limiting their ability to travel to the United States. Still, Hunt is confident more travel opportunities will soon be possible.

"I see the will in the Chinese people and elected officials to make this happen," Hunt said. "They know they want to participate in the world economy."

Hunt also plans to work with Nevada's congressional delegation to improve the likelihood of opening U.S.-Chinese travel corridors.

While in Asia, Hunt met with members of the Civil Aviation Administration of China who agreed to study the feasibility of direct air service to and from Las Vegas, as well as cargo flights through Reno/Tahoe International Airport. In addition, the state tourism commission will in March open an office in Beijing to further develop the Chinese market.

"With all of the Nevada gaming companies' casino projects going up in Macau, we're definitely on the Chinese radar," Hunt said in reference to separate resorts now being developed by Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts.

Not everyone is convinced that Nevada can tap the potentially lucrative Chinese market, however. One member of the October delegation, Reno businessman Ezio Valentini, last week criticized the trip as "inefficient," saying he felt the state's leaders were ill-prepared to meet with Chinese officials and instead jeopardized Nevada's ability to develop strong long-term relationships with China.

"There was not a spirit that we were going to accomplish growth in China. ... There was a spirit of, `How big a suitcase can I get to carry home everything I bought shopping,' " said Valentini, who is president of a fledgling venture known as the International Trade Currency System.

To support his claims, Valentini cited a purported $100 million convention center in the city of Tianjin, a project he said would have someday produced up to $30 million in revenue for Nevada, whose citizens and businesses would have lent expertise to the project.

Valentini said a deal for the center was to have been completed during his group's visit but was instead cancelled at the last moment for unknown reasons. Hunt on Tuesday said that project is still on the table and denied such a deal was scheduled to be completed during her trip.

Valentini added he spent nearly $20,000 -- including a $3,500 fee paid to the state -- to participate in the mission, which he later described as a "sightseeing and shopping expedition."

Hunt dismissed such allegations, citing a busy agenda that included 135 meetings with Chinese business leaders and officials as arranged by the U.S. Commerce Department.

"We started at the highest level possible so Nevada had good credibility," Hunt said.

Stuart Mann, who is dean of the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, also participated in the trip and disputed claims the journey was a junket.

"I was in meetings each day but one, and those discussions led to further meetings once I came home," Mann said Tuesday. "I couldn't be more pleased with the results of the trip."

UNLV will soon begin an educational exchange program with China to share Las Vegas-based insight with members of China's tourism industry, Mann said. The program's first phases could begin next June.

Collie Hutter of Carson City-based manufacturing company Click Bond Inc., made the trip with her husband, Charles, and son, Karl. She also said their company made valuable contacts on the trip that will result in Karl returning to China early next year.

Before Hunt's remarks, Guinn touted recent efforts to attract more international visitors to the state.

"We must communicate with the countries we're trying to get to come here face to face," Guinn said.

The Republican leader also lauded a Democratic predecessor in Carson City, former Gov. Richard Bryan, for his role in drafting a 1982 document that paved the way for a more-diverse tourism base.

Bryan's 13-page report, titled "Gaming and so much more," led to the creation of the state tourism commission a year later. It called for Nevada business and political leaders to develop nongaming amenities such as shopping, dining and outdoor recreation.