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Kenneth Zheng and his vacationing family dropped into the Cody Firearms Experience to shoot guns and hang out with John Wayne.
There was much bang-bang and admiring of the American western icon’s life-sized cutout, both symbols of the American West, but for the visitors from China, revelation, disbelief and amusement accompanied the stopover.
There were five members of the Zheng party on its tightly scheduled June swing through the region that included visits to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, a meal at China Town in Cody, a hop into the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s gift shop and the Firearms Experience.
Zheng, a Ph.D. professor of business at the University of Wyoming, was the tour guide since he is fluent in English. His parents, Longcheng Zheng and Quilian Shi, live in Laramie but don’t speak English, and he translated for cousins Ke Bian and Xi Gai from Xian, the city of 8.7 million people famous for the Terracotta Army statues.
For cowboys and Indians balance, when he was planning the Cody side trip, Zheng said, “I did consider staying in a teepee.”
Buses carrying perhaps 50 tourists making one-night stopovers or lunch-time pauses make up the majority of Chinese tourists to Cody, but more families are flying to large regional cities such as Salt Lake City or Denver, renting cars and touring on their own.
“We are seeing more multi-generational families taking trips that are more experientially based,” said Cody Country Chamber of Commerce executive director Tina Hoebelheinrich.
That means the tourists might fire guns instead of merely gazing out windows at sagebrush.
Those on their own pick up brochures and see what they can see in Cody.
That’s in addition to Yellowstone, the main destination for the region, its status secure as the jewel enticing travelers to the gateway communities.
Increase in Visitors
The triggering event for the influx of more Chinese tourists to the United States and Wyoming was the November 2014 agreement between President Barack Obama and Chinese leadership at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Beijing.
There, the U.S. and China adopted a 10-year, reciprocal visa program for tourists and businesspeople. That elevated China to the first rank of tourism partners alongside European nations, replacing a previous one-year visa travel limitation.
“Now they are getting more visas easily,” said Chris Lam, operator of the Hong Kong Restaurant in Cody for 30 years. In the three years since the agreement, he has seen huge growth in Chinese visitors to Cody.
“Now we get more and more individuals,” Lam said. “Every year it is more and more.”
That is the case all over the U.S. In 2005, there were 270,000 Chinese visitors. In 2013, it was 1.8 million. This year the total is projected to be nearly 3.5 million by Statista.com.
The Communist revolution took control of China in 1949 under Mao Tse-tung who instituted iron-fisted rule until his death in 1976.
For Americans 40 and older, China was mostly the enemy, a looming, dark presence in international affairs.
The man most responsible for China’s evolution to a freer society and its dramatic economic revolution was Deng Xiaoping, who consolidated power in 1978. The economic juggernaut China is today stems from his market reforms.
American writer Orville Schell, 77, who has reported on China since 1970, neatly encapsulated China’s shift from Communism to a more capitalistic society in an aptly named 1984 book called “To Get Rich Is Glorious.”
And glorious it has been for many of China’s 1.4 billion people. The country that makes up 18.5 percent of the world’s population was projected on Business Insider’s website last year to be endowed with a middle class of 550 million people by 2022, dwarfing the entire current U.S. population of 326 million.
Millions of people formerly trapped in a rural existence, with no freedom to travel only a generation ago, now have money to wander and spend lavishly on souvenirs.
Older Chinese with the means sign up for a bus tour and seek the comforting aid of a guide.
A tour guide named Ray, 33, who wrote his last name in a Chinese character, is based in Los Angeles after growing up in China. He was passing through Cody, leading a group of 40 Chinese men and women on a tour of Los Angeles, Arizona, Las Vegas, Utah and Wyoming that included national park stops in Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon.
“Eighty percent of the people are over 50 or 60,” Ray said. “They are older people who don’t speak English.”
China and The Center
In November of 2014, as President Obama was loosening the American visa policy, Bruce Eldredge, executive director and CEO of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, led an eight-person contingent to China to explore future ties. Back in Wyoming, after two weeks in China, Eldredge declared, “China is an opening market.”
In the three years since, the boom in Chinese travel Eldredge foresaw by reading the characters on the Great Wall has come true.
Buffalo Bill Cody traveled more miles than Marco Polo, but he did not bring his Wild West show to China.
Somehow, Cody transported a cast of hundreds of people and hundreds of livestock to far-off lands, but China was too preoccupied with its own affairs to become much enamored of the Old West. Cody spread the word about cowboys and Indians, Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Deadwood Stage throughout Europe.
But it is only much more recently Chinese people, accustomed to hoeing land from dawn to dusk and riding bicycles, acquired free time, automobiles and television sets.
“Independent television is showing 1950s and 1960s westerns,” Eldredge said.
That’s how Zheng’s parents know who John Wayne is.
Even if the Chinese weren’t on the Buffalo Bill bandwagon now, the Center is trying to woo them.
Marketing director Bruce Sauers said he learned on that China journey of 2014, “Everyone knew where Yellowstone was.”
Eldredge and Sauers recognized with that bridge crossed the rest was up to them.
A glossy Chinese travel magazine “Escape” includes a full-page Center ad, duplicating an old Buffalo Bill Wild West poster.
The museum has maps and brochures in Chinese and the gift shop can ship anywhere in the world, Sauers said.
For many years a goods-deprived society, now “the Chinese are the No. 1 spenders in international travel,” he said.
Sauers estimated the Center gets 1,000 Chinese tourists annually, 75 percent arriving by motor coach, representing “a slight increase” each year recently. “It’s just trending up.”
As attendance grows, the Center may hire a Chinese speaker as a summer employee, he said.
The cowboy and Buffalo Bill element is not yet a driving force bringing Chinese to Cody.
“They’re interested in the West, the wide, open spaces,” Eldredge said. “We sure do have a lot of that here.”
True. The population density of Wyoming is six people per square mile. Even though China is the largest country in the world with 3.7 million square miles, its population density is 383 and rapid growth in Chinese cities led to industrial pollution.
Kenneth Zheng’s relatives remarked upon those things.
“For them to come here and see blue sky, they were impressed,” he said. “They also thought, ‘Why are there so few people?’ Wyoming has 500,000 people. That’s like a township in China.”
Cody is not the only place on the outskirts of Yellowstone experiencing this changing tourist demographic.
Many buses to Yellowstone approach the Park from Jackson Hole, especially if they stop in Grand Teton first. Part of the wealthiest county in America, Jackson Hole has more high-end shopping, jewelry stores and art galleries than Cody.
West Yellowstone, Montana, currently has seven Chinese restaurants, a number that has expanded rapidly.
“There are a lot,” said Marysue Costello, executive director of West Yellowstone’s Chamber of Commerce.
Her chamber has a website in Mandarin Chinese. Signs posted in shop windows around town are in Chinese and business is good.
“It has meant hotels and vacation rentals, fairly strong retail, and good business for restaurants,” she said.
West Yellowstone, long known as a snowmobiling hub, has recently fielded inquiries about its snowy season, Costello added.
“We are starting to hear from winter tour groups,” she said. “People are looking for less crowded times.”
Cody competes for hotel stays with Jackson Hole and West Yellowstone and Chinese tour buses generally spend more time, often two nights, in those other communities.
In Cody, it is basically one-and-done, with a bus-load of perhaps 50 Chinese tourists arriving in early evening, chowing down, sleeping, and being on the highway to Yellowstone by 8 a.m.
One main Cody hotel in the China trade is the Holiday Inn.
“We’ve been in the group tour game for a long time,” said operator Quentin Blair of the business.
He said he was tipped to the change on the visa policy and jumped into the China market.
“Three years ago Chinese visitors represented 2 percent of our business,” Blair said. “Two years ago it was 5 percent. Now it is 8 percent. We will probably cap it at 12-to-15 percent.”
Lam, whose Hong Kong restaurant hours are 3 p.m.-midnight, gets customers walking over from the nearby Holiday Inn.
He recommends tour guides extend their visits in Cody to see the museum and attend a rodeo in the Rodeo Capital of the World.
“People want to stay longer in the Park,” Lam said. “But when it’s dark, you go nowhere. I always push them to do other things.”
There is no obvious outpouring of Chinese tourists at the rodeo. However, one night in June half-dozen Chinese men showed up decked out in new cowboys hats and boots, and climbed on Mongo the bull for $10 photo ops.
John Zhang, operator of China Town restaurant with wife Lu Yi, said customers are showing increased interest in the Cowboy Way.
“They want to know where they can buy cowboy boots,” he said. “They like the cowboy style.”
That includes guns and Paul Brock welcomes tourists at the Firearms Experience.
“We have the 10 commandments of safety in Chinese,” Brock said. “Usually, there is one English speaker per family.”
Everything from Winchesters to Glocks are popular.
“It’s all over the map,” Brock said, “but they’ve never held a firearm.”
Zheng said even during military training he hardly ever fired guns and family members never.
“My cousin said, ‘Are those real bullets?'” Zheng said. “They were so surprised they could buy guns in Walmart.”
It was a welcome-to-Wyoming moment.
Information from: The Cody Enterprise