August 26, 2014 at 11:39 pm

Calif. capitalizing on Chinese tourists

Costa Mesa, Calif.— On a hot summer day, nearly two dozen Chinese tourists descended from a white shuttle bus for an afternoon of shopping at one of Southern California’s signature upscale malls.

One tourist conferred with a salesman at South Coast Plaza about a plum-colored, $610 Prada handbag while fellow visitors on the 10-day tour sauntered through the mall, each with their sole child in tow, after a morning of whale watching off the California coast.

It’s a common scene at the popular destination in Orange County, which is doing what it can to keep buses filled with Chinese tourists coming. To make them feel at home, it accepts China’s UnionPay card and provides Mandarin-speaking salespeople.

From the mall’s shops to tourist spots that offer maps and brochures in Mandarin to hotels serving congee, or rice porridge, for breakfast, businesses in California are trying to entice the growing numbers of Chinese tourists coming to the U.S. to visit the state — and spend money.

Tourism from China to the U.S. has soared since the countries signed an agreement in 2007 promoting travel. More than 1.8 million Chinese visited last year, a three-fold increase in five years. By 2018, the number is expected to surpass 4 million, the U.S. Department of Commerce said.

California, the No. 1 destination, holds particular allure due to its proximity to China, theme parks and sunny weather. Nearly half of all Chinese tourists make a stop in the state.

Haybina Hao, of the National Tour Association, which qualifies U.S.-based tour operators to receive Chinese tour groups under the 2007 agreement, said the tourists are keen to see how a relatively young country like the U.S. developed so quickly and became so prosperous.

“Until they have visited U.S.A., they don’t feel they have done their international travel yet,” Hao said. “They need to see it and put themselves in the photograph, so they can prove they have done this.”

During their travels, they each spend an average of $5,400, 21 percent more than the average for all overseas tourists.

At first, tours from China mostly included older people, some who had saved for years to make the trip. Now more also include middle-aged parents bringing their only child to see America and school groups of teens who tour during summer break.

Many are eager to visit Disneyland and snap photographs at landmarks such as the Hollywood sign and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. They enjoy trying American foods — steak is a favorite — and taking advantage of cheaper prices for designer goods.

“It’s shopping paradise,” said 35-year-old Cici Chen on a stop at Disney California Adventure. Chen said she planned to fill up her suitcases on her California vacation before returning to Shanghai.