Although the U.S. travel industry anxiously awaits the return of Chinese visitors, the timing will largely depend on when Beijing decides to ease outbound travel restrictions.
U.S. tour operators have been frantically making numerous preparations to be ready to welcome overseas guests ever since the White House announced last month the country would reopen to fully vaccinated international air travelers.
And those preparations went into overdrive after the Biden administration unveiled November 8 as the reopening date.
But while numerous travel companies have enjoyed a surge in bookings in recent weeks, U.S. tour operators — a sector of the travel industry hard hit by 18 months of travel restrictions due to their heavy reliance on overseas guests — face another critical issue. It’s unlikely they will be welcoming the immediate return of large numbers of travelers from one of the country’s most lucrative markets, China. There are numerous hurdles that must be overcome before many prospective Chinese visitors can arrive in the U.S.
On the domestic travel front, a Chinese health official on Sunday urged new limits on cross-province travel as many new Covid cases were tied to tour groups.
“Currently, the Chinese government is prohibiting all travel agents from promoting or arranging any outbound tours for groups and (fully independent travelers),” said Gloria Lan, the CEO of TourAmerica and a board member of the International Inbound Travel Association.
That’s coupled with Beijing’s decision to stop issuing and renewing passports for non-urgent reasons, including leisure travel. And Lan admits it’s difficult to predict when restrictions on Chinese citizens traveling internationally will be eased.
She also cites another difficulty Chinese travelers will experience in getting to the U.S. “A lot of flights between the U.S. and China have been cancelled or reduced, and there is no sign of resuming the pre-pandemic flights,” she said.
Glen Hemingson, the director of business development at Alaska Skylar Travel, sees further red tape preventing large numbers of Chinese travelers from coming to the U.S. shortly after the November 8 reopening.
“The problem we face is with visas,” he said. “Visa applications can often be rather slow.”
The U.S. travel industry is certainly eager for China’s government to facilitate international travel for its citizens and start the process of reversing the decrease in Chinese visitor numbers that had started prior to the pandemic. Many attributed the slump to a trade war between the two countries.
Luring back large numbers of Chinese travelers would provide an enormous post-pandemic boost to the U.S. economy: Visitors from the world’s most populous country spent roughly $33.5 billion in 2019, ranking first among international travelers.
But is there any optimism that Chinese travelers will start traveling internationally again? James Jianzhang Liang, executive chairman of Trip.com — China’s largest online travel agency — expressed confidence last month that Chinese travelers would eventually resume traveling internationally due to increased vaccination rates worldwide.
Covid-related issues are a major concern for prospective Chinese visitors to the U.S. According to last month’s China Traveler Sentiment Report, 87 percent of the country’s consumers considered the U.S. the most unsafe country to visit among a list of 13 destinations — largely due to Covid surges.
Elsa Lo, the manager of New York-based tour operator China Silk Tours, agrees that Chinese travelers are absolutely concerned about their safety in the U.S. because of the pandemic. So how will tour operators work to assuage the worries Chinese guests have about Covid?
When asked that question, Hemingson admitted that he’s fortunate that his typical Chinese visitors are aware of the necessary precautions for avoiding Covid, especially as China has dealt with other viruses prior to the current pandemic. He added that Alaska Sylar Travel is taking the standard steps that many other tour operators are taking: ensuring that vehicles are sanitized and providing masks and hand washing facilities. Meanwhile, Lam said tour operators will need to provide access to PCR testing facilities.
An important question remains: When will Chinese travelers start to return to the U.S. in large numbers?
Lan believes the surge in visitor numbers won’t happen until after next year’s Chinese New Year — which falls on February 1. But that’s only a little more than three months away and, of course, the Chinese government would have to ease restrictions for international travel.
“However, we expect a big wave to return to the U.S.,” she said, although she believes U.S.-China tensions — in her opinion, the cause of declining Chinese visitation to the U.S. — won’t cool down soon or even after the pandemic.
Hemingson also shares Lan’s optimism in regards to a larger return of Chinese travelers in 2022. “If things continue in the same direction that they’re going on right now (pertaining to increased vaccination rates), I think we’ll see quite a lot of visitors, for us, in the winter of 2022/2023,” said the executive from Alaska Skylar Travel.
During a typical pre-Covid year, Alaska Skylar Travel attracted 3,000 to 4,000 guests during its busy winter season. Close to 40 percent of its clientele came from China.
Even if Alaska Skylar Travel doesn’t welcome as many Chinese guests as it hopes next year, Hemingson said the company’s structure provides its plenty of flexibility — mainly the ability to increase or decrease staffing numbers quickly in response to demand. He added that Alaska Skylar Travel has never depended solely on travelers from China. In fact, 60 percent of its clientele during the winter comes from the continental U.S. in an average year as well as the majority of its visitors during the summer.
And the pause has spurred tour operators an opportunity to develop more tours. Lo said her company plans to launch excursions in Mexico geared toward Chinese travelers, which she described as fresh opportunities in case guests choose not to visit the U.S.
Meanwhile, Hemingson views creating new trips as a possibility for this company, despite some concerns about its immediate future.
“This winter is going to be testing ground as we dip our toes back into the water,” Hemingson said as Skylar Travel had suspended operations from March 2020 to May of 2021.
But while the company had been cautious about developing new offerings during its pause due to uncertainty about how many guests it would welcome back, Hemingson said a strong winter season would lead Skylar Travel to create more tours.
“Once the mainland (China) market opens up, it’s going to be robust,” he said.
Photo credit: A group of visitors from China enjoying winter in Alaska Skylar Travel