Start the new year with a trip to the US

Updated: 2013-01-05 00:45

By CHEN JIA in San Francisco and WANG WEN in Beijing (China Daily)

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With the most important Chinese holiday approaching in February, many Chinese have begun signing up for travel to the United States, adding to a major source of US tourism.

Chinese and US travel agents are monitoring the burgeoning market of middle-class Chinese families making trips during an otherwise slow winter season for US tourism.

The California Travel and Tourism Commission, the state's official travel promoter, and four Chinese tourism companies have launched a project to attract Spring Festival vacationers from China.

The bigger objective is to make California the top destination for Chinese travelers during Spring Festival, said commission president Caroline Beteta.

The Chinese Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, begins on Feb 10 this year and lasts a week — though it can be stretched beyond two weeks when combined with the Lantern Festival, which begins on Feb 24.

Helen Tsui, director of Asia-Pacific tourism for the San Francisco Travel Association, said China is an important and growing market for the city.

"We are one of the first destinations that established representation offices in Shanghai and Beijing more than 15 years ago," she said.

"Since last year, our Shanghai office has also been working with five leading outbound tour operators in Shanghai to launch the Western America tour package targeting the Chinese New Year holiday," she said.

Preliminary figures show that Chinese citizens made more than 80 million trips to other countries in 2012, Dai Bin, president of the China Tourism Academy, said on Thursday.

Li Zhi, a 31-year-old engineer from Beijing, got tired of the huge crowds lining up at this time of the year in Chinese cities to buy train tickets to their hometowns.

He found he could beat the February travel rush and stay within his travel budget by taking a 12-day trip to the US.

"I'll pay for my parents' travel expenses and have a special Spring Festival with them in the United States this year," Li said.

Generous holiday spending indicates to friends and family that one is on good financial footing. "Not to mention spending the holiday in the US is very cool and worth showing off!" he exclaimed.

Meanwhile, Chinese consumers also prefer more high-end tourism products in the US, some business insiders said.

"The middle and high-end tourism routes to the US are our main products in the festival this year," said Zhang Qingzhu, marketing manager of China Comfort Travel Group.

Zhang said the agency launches products like golf and island tours in the US according to consumer demands.

"The number of our customers going to the US during the festival increased by about 15 percent over the last festival," she added.

Zhang Huiling, deputy manager of the American travel department at China CYTS Tours, said her company designed two itineraries for Chinese visitors — a 12-day West Coast trip or a 15-day tour across the US.

Prices range between 24,800 yuan ($4,000) and 31,800 yuan depending on departure times and airline, Zhang Huiling said.

This year's West Coast route includes three national parks: The Grand Canyon in Arizona, and Bryce Canyon and Zion in Utah. Two days' accommodation for Disneyland in Anaheim, California, is another selling point.

Wang Qian, head of American travel at CITS Ltd, said a trip to the US during Spring Festival is cheaper than in the peak July-September season.

Sarah Roach, tourism manager at Bloomingdale's department store in San Francisco, said she expects Chinese travelers will do plenty of shopping during their holiday sojourn. She said Bloomingdale's will have a number of special promotions for Spring Festival, with events throughout the store including traditional lion dancers, musicians, art exhibits, tea and dim sum tasting, and celebrity chefs.

The San Francisco store has more than 40 sales clerks who speak Mandarin and Cantonese, she said.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced recently that the city welcomed an estimated 41 million US visitors and 11 million international visitors in 2012. Helping drive the upward trend are tourists from China, whose numbers have increased more than fivefold since 2006, according to NYC & Co, the city's official tourism promotion arm.

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