In early December, the inaugural Hainan Airlines Co. Ltd. flight from Beijing pulled into a gate at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport, filled with travelers eager to indulge in all that Sin City offers. The flight is the airport’s first nonstop from China, and it’s a route McCarran executives spent years developing.
Now, people from all over the world regularly descend on this notorious desert metropolis. But for passengers from China filing off of Hainan’s thrice-weekly arrival, a special welcome awaits.
Three young, bilingual “ambassadors” dressed in bright red sweaters are there to greet travelers and help with directions. Most of the ambassadors are local university students who earn $25 per hour to staff the arrival and departure of each Boeing Co. 787 from China. But don’t mistake this new tarmac cheeriness as just another leisure destination trying to bolster its brand. This is serious business.
China is poised to become the world’s largest source of international travelers, sending as many as 200 million people abroad each year and becoming the tourism juggernaut to dwarf all others. Europe and Asia will claim a healthy share of these explorers, but the U.S. is among the top nations the Chinese want to see, from Niagara Falls to the Grand Canyon and all manner of towns in between.
“I want somebody from China to come into Las Vegas and to feel like Las Vegas is welcoming them and we value them,” said Chris Jones, the chief marketing officer at McCarran.
Las Vegas is among several destinations angling to get an early jump on Chinese travelers and the heavy expenditures they often make while abroad. Helping airports do so is a new company called China Ni Hao, an offshoot of Boyd Group International, a Colorado-based aviation consultancy run by former industry executives Mike and Marianne Boyd, who used to focus on helping airports attract new routes and new airlines.
New York-based China Ni Hao is marketing its trademarked “China Welcome” program for U.S. airports and other destinations that expect — or desperately hope to see — a cascade of up to 23 million Chinese visitors by 2021, and all the money they bring. These travelers don’t scrimp: they average a total spend of as much as $8,000 per trip, thanks in part to a penchant for authentic luxury goods.
Among its services, China Ni Hao will arrange signage, help hire bilingual contractors as needed, and establish a page on WeChat, a social media network with 700 million Chinese users. The app is an amalgamation of several online services that include instant messaging, photo sharing, and payments.
“We kind of outran our headlights,” said Mike Boyd, who attended high school in Taiwan and learned to speak Mandarin. “When we started to promote it, the next thing we knew, we had business up the wazoo.”
Much of the growth has come during a U.S. administration that strongly courted Chinese travelers, including a joint declaration of 2016 as the “U.S.-China Tourism Year” by President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. President-elect Donald Trump has tagged China as a trade and military threat, putting forth extreme rhetoric during his campaign about the nation placing America at a disadvantage. Trump further antagonized Chinese officials this month by speaking with Taiwan’s president, a break with long-held U.S. policy on China.
Boyd and Chris Spring, another of China Ni Hao’s three principals, said it is doubtful that Trump’s rhetoric will lead to a significant impact on U.S.-China travel.
The expansion of airport signage, digital outreach, and other Chinese-welcoming strategies is a natural evolution of traffic flows, given the extraordinary growth of China-U.S. travel, Boyd said. “It has nothing to do with our xenophobic country,” he said. “It’s just that we didn’t need it before, and now we do.”
An additional reason for the airports’ interest in welcome programs is that Chinese visitors, especially younger ones, are beginning to travel abroad independently. They no longer rely on the large tour operators that once flew groups to Los Angeles or New York and then shepherded them on bus trips around the region. A spate of new direct flights — plus heavy connecting traffic via South Korean airlines — mean that Chinese tourists are landing solo in such places as Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and Seattle.
Southern Pennsylvania, believe it or not, is another prominent draw for Chinese tourists, Boyd said. They’re lured by Hershey Co.’s Chocolate World and the nearby rural Amish communities. China Ni Hao said that, as a result, it’s pitching its service to Harrisburg officials. Meanwhile, down on the Gulf coast, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport recently ordered traveler brochures in Mandarin through China Ni Hao.
Ahead of the Hainan service to Las Vegas, McCarran airport directors budgeted a one-year cost of $150,000 for the program, with one-third spent for startup expenses, Jones said. The rest goes mainly to cover about 60 hours of staffing per month for the flight arrivals and departures.
“The Chinese market is so different and so unique,” he said. “I get that [travelers] needed their own signage. You could drop me in Italy or France, and I could get by. You drop me in Beijing, and — if it weren’t for the signage printed in English — I’m lost.”
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