One million Chinese tourists tell the tale of America’s changing economy

A tour guide in New York City shows Chinese tourists Wall Street, a monument to American avarice.
A tour guide in New York City shows Chinese tourists Wall Street, a monument to American avarice.
Image: AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Or at least a reminder about the benefits of China’s growing economy to a post-industrial United States. Fortune reports that since the US and China agreed to allow tourism in 2007, the number of visitors surged to 1.1 million in 2011—leaving $4.4 billion in economic benefits behind.

Besides the legal arrangements, the big difference maker has been the rise of China’s middle class, who can afford to travel globally and buy goods while abroad, spending an average of $6,000 per trip to the US, more than tourists from any other country, according to Fortune.

But the US is far behind other countries when it comes to welcoming Chinese tourists, or anyone else for that matter: America’s share of the world travel market is 6.4%, down from 7.5% in 2000, according to the United Nations. The US still led world traveller spending with an 11.3% share in 2011 (pdf)—but that’s a third less than it was in 2000.

There’s room for growth: Populous China ranks just 9th on the list of countries whose citizens visited the US in 2011. Besides Canada and Mexico, which are predictably in first and second place, the US sees more tourists from Brazil, South Korea and Japan, along with European stalwarts like the UK, France and Germany.

The Obama administration has launched “Brand USA,” an effort to market the country to tourists, but America’s heavy travel security deters travellers, its visa-issuing bureaucracy lags behind, and everyone from restaurateurs to retailers are still learning how to relate to Chinese cultural mores.

Which is why the US isn’t the only place Chinese tourists are headed: Tourism is up in east Asia as well, including a 32% hike in visitors to Taiwan last year, and credit card purchases by Chinese nationals increased by 40% in a group of well-visited countries, including Cambodia, Thailand, South Korea, and Malaysia.

As China’s economy grows, more of its citizens will be interested in travelling. Building up a services industry that can answer that demand is a key growth strategy for advanced economies looking to employ people and create growth as industrial jobs are replaced by robots and cheaper labor overseas. Relating to other people, making them feel welcome and showing them a good time—the tourism industry—requires a human touch.

At least for the time being.