By CHEYNA ROTH
Capital News Service
LANSING — The U.S. is making it easier for Chinese residents to visit the United States, and Michigan is working hard to take advantage of this new economic opportunity.
Leisure visas into the United States from China are now good for 10 years, which makes it cheaper and easier for Chinese tourists to come and go. A rising economy and growing upper middle class mean Chinese visitors can stay longer and spend more than they used to, tourism officials said.
About 1.8 million Chinese tourists traveled to the U.S. in 2013, according the U.S. Office of Travel & Tourism Industries. In 2014, a little over 1.9 million had visited by October.
President Obama’s November announcement extending 10-year visas for leisure was “one of those change-the-world things for us,” said Dave Lorenz, a Travel Michigan manager who was in China on a sales mission when he heard the news.
Because Michigan is not a high-profile tourist destination like New York or Disney World, it is not always a top choice for international visitors. Lorenz believes longer-lasting visas will inspire Chinese tourists to visit Michigan on a third or fourth trip to the United States.
“Once they go through that process, they’re going to want to see all of America,” Lorenz said. “They’ll see Disney, the Grand Canyon, and then they’re gonna want to start seeing what we describe as ‘real America’ — you know, the experience that we have to offer.”
Lorenz said Chinese visitors to Michigan have noticed the clean air and plant life unspoiled by air pollution.
Outreach efforts include a Chinese version of the Pure Michigan website, www.travelmichigan.cn, launched in November. It is almost identical to the Pure Michigan site except in Chinese.
Lorenz says it is still too soon to tell how the website, which includes Chinese-language videos, is doing, but he is confident it will build steam. Lorenz said Baidu, the Chinese equivalant of Google, returns numerous hits on travelmichigan.cn because of recent visits by President Obama and tourism officials such as himself.
Travel Michigan plans to boost awareness for the website by bringing in travel writers from China to experience Michigan, working with travel agencies to get their clients to go to the website and promoting it through social media.
According to Lorenz, the next stage is to make local businesses more aware of the potential influx of Chinese visitors.
Some popular Michigan tourist destinations are already working to draw Chinese visitors. Grand Rapids is collaborating with the state and Pure Michigan to make Grand Rapids a desirable destination, said Janet Korn, senior vice president of Experience GR.
The city has partnered with Brand USA to make tourist videos in multiple languages that are distributed to travel corporations in target countries.
Because many global companies are headquartered in Grand Rapids and West Michigan, the area already receives many Chinese and other international visitors, Korn said. But more are expected as the state puts a greater emphasis on tourism.
Grand Rapids, along with Lansing and Kalamazoo, has joined the Certified Tourism Ambassador Program, a national program that tailors presentations and trainings to individual cities. The main focus of the program is to increase visitors’ destination knowledge and to train the cities in good tenets of customer service. Grand Rapids is making an effort to weave cultural sensitivity into the program.
“There’s some tips on things that might be appropriate in our culture, in the United States, that just don’t resonate with international visitors in the same way,” Korn explained. “I would say behavioral things as much as … to be aware of differences in culture.”
The Ambassador Program’s website indicates that customer service tools like Cultural Competence in Serving International Visitors and Multicultural Customers, and Quick Guide to Interacting with Other Cultures help participants communicate and understand the needs of visitors of various cultures.
Although the hospitality industry of Grand Rapids is not learning Chinese or creating Mandarin menus yet, the possibility could exist in the future. Korn predicts that some larger hotels could be the first hospitality entities that would invest in nation-specific offerings.
But some areas are in the very early stage. Traverse City is just starting to get involved in the travel initiatives with China, although it has been involved in other foreign travel initiatives, particularly with the U.K., said Brad VanDommelen, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism.
Like Grand Rapids, Traverse City has produced native-language promotion videos including one in Mandarin Chinese. But the city does not have the Ambassador Program or the pre-existing Chinese clientele.
“We look forward to get involved ourselves … with the Chinese effort just like we have in the U.K. and German efforts,” VanDommelen said. “But we like to follow the state’s lead because it’s way too big for us as Traverse City alone to enter a market like China. So we have to let the state go in, get things set up.”
At the Governor’s Travel Conference in March, there will be some discussion about what tourist areas can do to prepare. However, Lorenz also hopes to bring together the industry in a seminar setting and go over things like hospitality education and what the Chinese traveler is expecting.
“They are a different group and they expect different things.” Lorenz said.
By CHEYNA ROTH