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Chris Jones

Nevada, Las Vegas Court Chinese Contingent

15 October 2004

LAS VEGAS -- As he welcomed more than a dozen Chinese journalists to his Strip wedding chapel late Wednesday morning, Greg Smith shared what most locals consider a lengthy history of his 62-year-old Little Church of the West.

Realizing in seconds that China's written history dates back approximately 3,500 years, Smith quickly shifted gears to historical trivia better suited to his audience: that celebrity couples Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere, and Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton, once wed in that very room.

Video cameras rolled to action, and oohs and ahs flowed easily from foreign tongues.

"I know you're a long way from home, but you're in a very unique place today," Smith said of the chapel he co-owns.

He could have just as easily been speaking about Las Vegas, where glitz and glamour almost always take center stage.

This week's Chinese media tour was organized by the Nevada Commission on Tourism, which this summer opened an office in Beijing to promote travel and trade with a segment of that nation's 1.3 billion residents.

Commission spokeswoman Chris Chrystal said the state spent about $11,000 to set up the trip, with local businesses donating hotel rooms, show tickets, meals and other amenities. Given the visiting journalists' expected coverage, most involved considered the costs an investment in the potentially lucrative Chinese market, Chrystal said.

"When these people experience what we have in Nevada and convey it to their viewers and readers, who number in the millions, it's much more credible than if we were to run an ad in a magazine," Chrystal said. "You sow the seeds ... and after a while the seeds will sprout."

The visiting Chinese will see plenty during their six days in Nevada. After connecting in Los Angeles around noon Tuesday, the group arrived in Las Vegas that evening. By noon Wednesday, they'd already toured the Grand Canyon, thanks to Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, and received an inside look at Las Vegas' wedding industry, Chrystal said.

Plans call for visits to the Forum Shops and Fashion Show malls, Stratosphere's thrill rides and Cirque du Soleil's "O" show at Bellagio, among others. The group will drive by bus to Reno on Saturday, later visiting Lake Tahoe, the state Capitol and Virginia City before returning to China on Tuesday.

Lu Yuenong, executive editor-in-chief of Shanghai-based Traveller Magazine, said his coverage will likely focus on gaming, which tops China's fascination with Las Vegas. But he also plans to share other unexpected experiences, including Las Vegas' warm fall weather, its wedding chapels and production shows.

China's interest in Nevada has surged in recent months through television programs and movies, as well as the recent debut of Las Vegas-style gaming in Macau, he added.

"(Macau) is very positive. It makes people want to come to Las Vegas," Yuenong said.

Brandon Reed, general manager of Las Vegas' Candlelight Wedding Chapel, is pleased two staff members from China's Modern Bride Magazine made the trip. About 40 percent of his business comes from overseas, and in June, Reed took part in a state-sponsored economic development tour of China.

Reed returned with improved confidence that Chinese couples will soon be frequenting Las Vegas' 30 or so wedding chapels.

"We feel (weddings) are a very legitimate reason to come to Las Vegas," said Reed, who shared that message with Chinese government and travel industry leaders over the summer.

Though some in the Chinese government worry that couples who travel to America to wed might not return to the communist nation, Reed believes opposition to freer travel is waning.

"We feel that sooner, not later, this market is going to knock open our doors," Reed said.

Much must still be done in both nations' capitals, however.

Hyoung Gyun Kim, a Shanghai-based regional sales general manager with South Korea's Asiana Airlines, said his company's leaders have been impressed by Nevada's efforts to reach out to China. But visa and flight limitations are still big obstacles for increased Sino-American air service.

Kim said his visit could precede direct Asia-to-Las Vegas flights by his Seoul-based carrier, though he was not scheduled to meet with representatives of McCarran International Airport this week. For now, he wants to experience Nevada and later share his impressions with colleagues across the Pacific.

His top memory so far? The Strip's lights as viewed from his room at Monte Carlo.

"Even at 3 a.m., I looked out the window and it was never dark," Kim said through an interpreter.