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Chris Jones

More Chinese Tourists Expected

13 April 2006

LAS VEGAS -- Slowly, and certainly not silently, a Chinese invasion looms before the U.S. travel industry.

And long before Asia's exodus reaches American shores, more American hotel and restaurant operators would be wise to welcome so many big-spending guests, sources said Wednesday in Las Vegas.

"(Chinese travelers) could potentially dwarf all of our other inbound travel markets," said Bruce Bommarito, director of the Nevada Commission on Tourism.

The U.S. last year welcomed 49.4 million foreign visitors, including more than 405,000 from China (including Hong Kong), the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries reports.

China ranked 12th among last year's top feeder nations, but its 24 percent growth from 2003 suggests more trans-Pacific visits are on the way.

That's good news for Nevada, which draws an estimated 93 percent of all Chinese visitors in the U.S., Bommarito said during a panel discussion at the Las Vegas International Hotel and Restaurant Show at Mandalay Bay.

Chinese travelers love to shop and typically outspend guests from other countries.

Their average stay in the U.S. ranges from 10 to 18 days, allowing Chinese to spend time in Nevada even if their trip takes them as far as the East Coast, Bommarito said.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Bommarito said the U.S. government doesn't limit the number of Chinese visas it issues.

Would-be visitors must complete an embassy-based interview before traveling here, but even that step has been streamlined in recent years.

Shunfeng Song, a Chinese native who oversees the economics department at the University of Nevada, Reno, said his homeland has a powerful but rapidly changing economy.

China's 2005 gross domestic product was $2.25 trillion, fourth in the world behind the U.S., Japan and Germany.

Coupled with more than $60 billion in foreign investment, the nation's 1.3 billion residents include a rapidly emerging middle class who enjoy traveling.

Song said 90 percent of Chinese travel occurs within China. Last year, 1.2 billion Chinese took a trip, and Song said that sector offers "big room ... to grow," particularly for international markets.

Brian Beall, a senior policy analyst from the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, said China supplied 28.9 million outbound visits worldwide in 2004.

More U.S. citizens visit China than vice versa, an imbalance leaders in Washington hope to correct using business and diplomatic endeavours.

Last week, U.S. and Chinese government leaders met in Los Angeles to discuss a recent memorandum of understanding regarding travel between the nations, including ways to expand direct air service.

"This is a great opportunity for the U.S.," Beall said about luring more Chinese visitors here.

To keep those guests coming, cultural changes must also occur.

For example, Bommarito said Chinese travelers typically seek Chinese food when traveling abroad. Bob Ansara, who owns Las Vegas' Ricardo's Mexican restaurant, asked for tips on ways non-Chinese restaurateurs could entice business from visiting Chinese.

Bommarito and Song encouraged Ansara and others to print a few menus in Chinese. Song added he's lived in the U.S. for 20 years but is often uncomfortable eating out because the ingredients of many Mexican, Italian and American dishes remain unfamiliar.

Nevada's interest in China developed over several years. Bommarito and Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt led the state's first pro-business tour of the Asian nation in October 2003. That 10-day trip included stops in Beijing, Hong Kong, Macau and Shanghai.

In June 2004, the commission opened the first U.S. state-sponsored tourism office in Beijing. And three months ago, the Washington-based Travel Industry Association of America tabbed Bommarito to head a task force created to lure more foreign travelers, including Chinese, to the U.S..

The state has not enjoyed direct flights from China since Singapore Airlines canceled its Las Vegas-Hong Kong service three years ago.

But Korean Air will add thrice-weekly service from Seoul this fall, and its president, Lee Jong-hee, two months ago told The Korea Times he believes South Korea and China will enact an "open skies" agreement within the next two to three years.

That step would allow unlimited flights between the two nations, greatly expanding Lee's airline's ability to ferry Chinese travelers to and from Las Vegas by way of Seoul.

The two-day International Hotel and Restaurant Show, which is closed to the public, is presented by the Nevada Hotel & Lodging Association; Nevada Restaurant Association; and California Hotel & Lodging Association.

Organizers were expecting 400 exhibitors and 4,000 attendees.

At a luncheon Wednesday, Boyd Gaming Corp. Chairman Bill Boyd was honored as Nevada's hotelier of the year; Scott Farber, director of operations for Emeril's Fish House at MGM Grand and Delmonico's Steakhouse at The Venetian was named the year's top restaurateur.