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It’s a common sight around Jackson this summer: Chinese tourists milling around Town Square posing for photos in front of the iconic elk antler arches.
It’s also a sight that doesn’t come as a surprise to the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce and new businesses that are working to cater to a new group of tourists.
“It’s been a strategy of many businesses in the area to go after that market for quite a few years,” chamber of commerce president and CEO Jeff Golightly said.
Many hotels have been targeting the Asian tourist market, he said, and chamber representatives have been to trade shows to attract Asian visitors.
“It’s a multiyear strategy to get these folks here,” he said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. Mostly we’re seeing the success from a pretty savvy group of marketers. We’re seeing that traveler start to show up.”
While the chamber does not have exact numbers for Chinese visitors, one business owner catering to the market has an estimate.
Brian Riley, co-owner of Old Hand Holdings who is working on a Mandarin language guidebook to the area, guesses about 500 Chinese tourists are in town each day. That includes the 250 who show up in tour buses and the nearly 50 percent of all visitors who are younger, independent travelers, he said.
Chinese visitors are familiar with and interested in America’s national parks, he said, which means Jackson ranks as a destination for those travelers.
“When you go to China, they’ve all heard of Yellowstone,” said Mark Newcomb, an economic consultant and a board member of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs.
Newcomb returned Monday from a trip to China. He visited the country with a delegation of state legislators to talk about strategies to reduce carbon emissions from coal.
He said he can see why Chinese are enamored with nature.
“They’re coming from a really crowded and polluted environment, and that’s also a draw for the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone,” he said.
The influx of Asian tourists has made Grand Teton National Park take notice, too.
“It is definitely a bit of change and an exciting change, reaching out to people who may not have previously understood the beauty and wonder of America’s national parks,” park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said. “It has made us realize we need to develop information in various languages — probably Mandarin — to reach out to the international tourists.”
Two new businesses in Jackson have sprouted up this spring to do just that.
The East Meets West Chinese Information Center is translating menus and other materials for businesses and has Mandarin-speaking guides on hand for tourists.
Bruce Simon, owner of Prime Properties, opened the center in May. He has traveled extensively in China and knows a lot about the economy and culture and wants to engage the millions of tourists expected to travel and spend money in the gateway to two national parks.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out they are here,” Simon said, “and some businesses are figuring out that they want to change a little bit to do some business with the Chinese. With other businesses, we’ve felt a little bit of resistance to the Chinese, but I just don’t think they’ve figured it out yet.”
He stressed that Chinese tourists want to buy mementos that are made in the United States, so shops should emphasize those products in their stores.
“The last thing they want to do is buy a trinket that’s made in China and take it home,” he said.
Old Hand Holdings — the business started by Riley, who lived in Asia for 30 years, and Rowan Laing — is publishing a Mandarin-language visitors guide to Yellowstone, the Tetons and Jackson Hole. It’s called 89 Magazine.
“They don’t have the ability to navigate the parks in a safe and exciting manner because they don’t have information in their hands,” Riley said.
The pair held information sessions recently to give some background on why the Chinese are coming to the area — and to sell space in their soon-to-be-published guidebooks.
China has a growing middle class and a five-year plan written by its government to get residents to be less provincial, Riley said.
“They have a ton of cash and they’re happy to spend that money,” he said.
Chinese tourists spend more than $6,000 per trip, he said, citing information from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
President Barack Obama’s visa reform in 2012 also made it easier for Chinese residents to travel, Riley said. In 2013, 97 million Chinese left the country to travel, he said. Projections put the number at 400 million by 2018.
The United States ranks No. 11 for the total number of Chinese tourists. Among places they visit in America, Yellowstone National Park ranks No. 9.
The reason the Mandarin magazine and language targeted at tourists is so important is because so many Chinese people do not speak English, he said.
“Only 44 percent have any English language skills or training,” Riley said. “What we consider cowboy friendly or Western hospitality is a nightmare to them. You’ve called them uneducated or ignorant in some fashion when you approach them.”
It’s embarrassing to them to not be able to speak the language, Laing said.
The magazine is set to be available mid-July.
“Once we get this Mandarin visitor guide produced and printed, we want to take it to China and deliver it to travel agencies and directly to the Chinese traveler,” Laing said.
Their company also holds the website domain names for Yellowstone and Jackson Hole in China, Riley said.
Several business owners showed up the presentation to learn more about the Chinese tourists.
“I’m definitely curious about the influx and increase in the Chinese market,” Mary Bergeron of Astoria Fine Art said, “and want to be better accommodating — as accommodating as we can to whatever tourists are coming into the valley.”
Sheri Bickner, owner of the Onyx and Antler Gallery of Jackson Hole, said she had 60 Chinese people in her Town Square store the hour after the lunch presentation.
“We’ve done an incredible amount of business with people from Shanghai in the last couple of years,” she said. But “the language barrier has been a real challenge for us.”
Newcomb also attended the presentation. He said he is interested in what the valley is doing to capture the new market.
“The cultural gap between Chinese and Americans is greater than it is between a German and American,” he said. “There’s a lot businesses can do here to enhance the Chinese shopping experience. It’s really exciting what’s going on. I’d fully encourage any business to pay attention.”
The chamber plans to try to figure out how many Chinese tourists came to the area, Golightly said.
“We will, later this summer, make sure we include that info on some of our surveys,” he said.
Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com