While often overlooked, the most lucrative Chinese “tourists” are not high-volume luxury shoppers. They’re students.

In 2017, 32.5 percent of international students studying in the United States — 350,000 students in total — were from China. The U.S. higher education system’s appeal in China is best illustrated by the fact that 90 percent of the Chinese students studying in the United States covered their costs out-of-pocket. In total, these students contributed $12 billion to the U.S. economy—an important source of revenue for the United States, even before the students entered their college programs.

A new study conducted by the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Professor Joy Huang, along with then-doctoral student Qian Li, has revealed how Chinese families often spend thousands on making sure their children can find the right university in the United States.

In 2013, 300,000 Chinese students participated in study tours in the United States and other developed countries; two years later this figure grew to 500,000. These tours are usually organized by high schools and travel agencies and usually last two to four weeks. Families typically pay between $5,000 and $8,000 for such tours.

In interviews with both parents and students for Huang’s study, participants expressed different motivations for joining these tours, but the most important aspect to parents was that these trips would enhance the education and life experiences of participants and allow them to obtain a more “global perspective,” therefore giving them an edge in the job market. For the students, learning about daily life abroad and improving English language skills were another important motivation. Some interviewees (both parents and students) also hoped the trips would foster independence and serve as preparation for college life.

These tours are, in and of themselves, a lucrative tourism opportunity for the United States, but they don’t end with prestigious East or West Coast universities like Yale or Stanford. Tours often stop by lesser-known universities on the coasts and in the Midwest, making them potentially beneficial for a wider range of destinations than traditional tourist stops. Similarly, when Chinese students and parents leave with good impressions, the desirability of U.S. tourism for both education and leisure purposes improves for friends and family back in China, and that tourism grows exponentially when young Chinese people move to the U.S. to study by promoting further visits from friends and family.

Unfortunately, the harsh language of President Donald Trump is threatening this valuable source of tourism. In a closed-door dinner at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump reportedly stated, in reference to an unnamed country, that “almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy.” The anonymous source, quoted by Politico, indicated that Trump was likely referring to China since the president had ranted about China’s trade policies and the Belt and Road Initiative.

It’s unclear if the Trump administration will actively move to restrict the flow of Chinese educational tourists to the U.S. However, some Chinese students have already expressed concerns over hostility toward them, particularly in relation to Trump’s efforts to cut down on IP theft by Chinese actors and the potential targeting of Chinese academic researchers.

Some concerns over Chinese government influence operating through student organizations or even students themselves are valid, at least to an extent. Perhaps the most dramatic example took place at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). In June of last year, the Dalai Lama was going to deliver a commencement address at the university, but the arrival of the Tibetan Buddhist leader sparked outrage among Chinese students on campus. Chinese student groups voiced their opposition to the leader’s presence on campus, arguing that it was insensitive and even racist to Chinese students. Last year, Chinese students made up roughly 14 percent of the student body at UCSD.

While foreign students voicing opposition under the auspices of free speech protection is legal in the U.S., some of the student organizations involved in the UCSD protests, particularly the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, are either sponsored or controlled by Chinese officials, some of whom are from embassies and consulates in the U.S. The protests were somewhat organic in nature, but it’s also clear that Chinese state actors are invariably connected, to an extent, to these movements.

At times, Chinese embassies have voiced their opposition to the actions of Western universities and the content promoted on campus, such as the inviting of dissident Anastasia Lin to Durham University in the UK. Plainclothes Chinese security even harassed a student journalist at an event in Canberra, Australia, and security officials in the U.S. have voiced concerns about the use of Chinese students at American universities to steal research and technology.

But the validity of these concerns doesn’t matter to Chinese educational tourists. If potential Chinese students don’t feel welcomed or accepted in the U.S., they’ll be less inclined to come. That will hurt the Chinese educational tourism economy that was blooming the U.S., both in terms of student travel and the additional travel that these student exchanges promote.

This story originally appeared on Jing Travel, a Skift content partner.

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Photo Credit: Southern Oregon University is shown in this photo from 2017. President Donald Trump's rhetoric toward China is threatening the lucrative student tourism market. Al Case / Flickr