Manhattan fights NJ, Flushing for Chinese tourists

Updated: 2014-04-04 07:56

By MICHAEL BARRIS in New York (China Daily USA)

Manhattan is in a fight for Chinese tourists' dollars.

The number of visitors from the world's most populous country - the city's fastest-growing market for overseas visitors - has surged 19 percent in the past year. But Manhattan's hotels are struggling to cash in on the tourist tide because value-conscious Chinese are staying across the Hudson River in New Jersey, where room rates are much cheaper, and many are staying in less pricey parts of the city.

"New Jersey is very popular, but more and more Chinese tourists are staying in hotels in Flushing (a section of the New York borough of Queens)," an agent for a Manhattan-based tour company said.

As the return of spring-like weather to the New York area feeds the urge by Chinese to travel, the City that Never Sleeps is luring globe-trotting Chinese with special deals.

A quick Internet search found one Manhattan hotel willing to provide slippers and a teapot in every room; another offered a $49 Chinese breakfast to tour groups. NYC & Company, the city's tourism branch, has set up a Shanghai "training academy" to teach Chinese travel agents about the benefits of booking a hotel in the city, according to the organization’s website. And Times Square's Marriott Marquis hotel — which typically doesn't get big groups of Chinese tourists — will host 300 of Amway Great China's top sellers from Shanghai for five nights this month.

It isn't hard to see why New York City is pulling out all the stops to lure Chinese travelers. Just 65 percent of Chinese visitors, compared with 87 percent of Brazilians and 84 percent of British, stay in the city's 101,000 hotel rooms, according to the publication Crain's New York Business.

That disparity was clear in the comments of staff at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan. "I haven't had anyone here from China so far today," a lobby clerk told a China Daily reporter. At the Renaissance hotel up Seventh Avenue, a clerk said: "We don't get a lot (of Chinese guests) here."

Despite its mythic reputation, Manhattan ends up being just one dish in a sumptuous banquet for sightseers from China — apparently best consumed in a day or two.

For instance, a travel brochure aimed at day-trippers from China has Manhattan as the headlining destination, including side-trips to the United Nations headquarters, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, and Chinatown. Also vying for wealthy Chinese tourists and shoppers’ hearts and wallets, however, are locations such as the Woodbury Common outlet stores north of the city; Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Niagara Falls, and Toronto.

Nevertheless, China remains New York City's No 4 market for overseas visitors, attracting some 646,000 Chinese tourists in 2013. Thanks to China's granting the US "approved destination status" in 2007 and a 2012 executive order by President Barack Obama streamlining the visitors' visa application process at a US consulate in China, China could soon become New York's top market, NYC & Company said. Up to now, the UK has held the title, sending the US more than 1 million visitors last year.

To attract Chinese tourists, Fifth Avenue's Peninsula Hotel introduced a $49 Chinese breakfast about four years ago at its restaurant, adding a $43 vegetarian version last summer. Hornblower Cruises & Events hired several Chinese graduate students from New York University to help it launch harbor-tour boats for Mandarin-speaking tourists.

Meanwhile, hoteliers in New Jersey say they have more Chinese business than they can handle. "We sometimes turn them away to a sister property," Cathy Coanda, director of sales for the Crowne Plaza hotel in Elizabeth, was quoted in Crain's New York Business. The 260-room property near Newark airport is booking more than 5,000 room nights a year from Chinese tour operators, who request a discount as well as breakfast in exchange for the high volume they bring.

NYC & Company is trying to convince Chinese tour operators that there are deals to be had in the city. Many Chinese visitors have friends and family members with whom they stay, but those who come in big tour groups stay in hotels with ample parking for their buses.

"We are positioning the borough hotels as an alternative to New Jersey, showing the Chinese the advantages of Long Island City, Queens, for example, over Edison," bureau chief executive Fred Dixon told Crain's.

When asked the cost of a shopping, gambling and sightseeing package for a hypothetical group of 10-15 affluent Chinese seniors from Beijing, the agent for a Manhattan-based tour company came back with an eight-day plan. It included transportation from a New York airport, sightseeing at Wall Street, the Statue of Liberty, the United Nations, museums, Times Square, Atlantic City for gambling, Philadelphia, Washington and a return to NYC.

He quoted a rate for the group - excluding accommodations, food, incidentals or tips - of $450 for airport pickup, $700 for airport pickup with a one-day tour, $350 for airport drop-off from the hotel. For a day-long city outing including multiple drop-offs and pick-ups, the cost would be $650. For trips out of New York, the fee would be $750. The tour guide’s fee would be $150 per day. Suggested tips for both the bus driver and the tour guide would be $4 per day apiece.

The disparity in hotel room rates between the priciest areas of Manhattan and the borough of Queens and New Jersey is considerable.

The per-night price of a standard double occupancy, not including taxes, at Novotel Times Square is $425. A comparable room at the Marco hotel in Flushing costs $180; at the Red Roof Inn, Flushing, $130; and the Holiday Inn at Newark airport, $160.

If you're a tourist from China, there are many good reasons to visit New York; but if Manhattan's hotel industry has its way, the biggest one will be: It's not New Jersey.