Skift Take

U.S. tourism executives came back from their trips optimistic about the Chinese tourism market's recovery despite long visa wait times and the slow return of air connectivity.

U.S. tourism businesses just finished their first post-pandemic sales missions to China — their first trips in four years.

Visit California and NYC Tourism + Conventions brought delegations of hotels, attractions and local businesses. Delegate members had meetings with China’s tour operators, travel agencies and members of its local travel industry.

Boosting travelers from China is a priority for U.S. tourism boards.

In 2019, China sent 2.8 million travelers to the U.S., making it the fifth largest source market, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office. In 2023, It is expected to reach just 849,000.

And in 2019, Chinese tourists were the U.S.’s top market in terms of spending – over $30 billion, according to Brand USA President and CEO Chris Thompson. Without them, he said, there will be no recovery for the U.S. tourism industry.

In August, China lifted pandemic-era group tour restrictions for the U.S. and other key markets.

Fred Dixon, NYC Tourism + Conventions CEO, said there’s been a rise in travel inquiries about trips to New York City since then but that other issues have held back booking volumes: Specifically, there are still limited flights between the U.S. and China and long wait times for visas. New York City expects to receive 386,000 Chinese tourists this year.

Here are key takeaways from the China trips:

1. China’s Economic Turmoil Hasn’t Stifled Demand

From his conversations with tour operators and travel agencies, demand seems “strong” and the outlook is positive, said Jean-Yves Ghazi, president of the Empire State Building Observatory.

Caroline Beteta, Visit California CEO, had a similar takeaway: “It’s really incredible. There’s so much pent-up demand,” she said. Beteta herself didn’t go to China, but members of her staff led the delegation and briefed her. Visit California plans to invest over $7 million on marketing in China over the coming months.

China’s economic slowdown could deter spending on international travel. But while China deals with a youth unemployment rate of 25%, the demand is still there.

“The tour operators have not mentioned any reference to the impact of the economy,” said Ghazi. 

“When you look at the country in terms of unemployment and any economic challenges, the wholesale number of people in China, and then you take the cut that are actually able to travel, it still satisfies demand and people wanting to get on planes right away,” said Beteta.

2. Visa Wait Times Continue to Hurt Bookings

Chinese tourists face steep wait times to get a visitor visa interview. “The first step for any new Chinese traveler that is not in possession of a 10-year visa is to get a visa before they can acquire an airline ticket. That’s the first challenge for them,” said Ghazi. 

There’s a long queue for a tourist visa. “Unfortunately, there’s still 160,000 visa applications that are waiting to be processed,” said Beteta. 

Would-be Chinese tourists have to wait over 180 days on average, according to the U.S. Travel Association. “Consumers that need to obtain or renew U.S. visas may be waiting over six months,” said Beteta.

3. West Coast Will Recover Flights Faster

In August, the U.S. and China agreed to increase the number of weekly flights to 18 starting on September 1 then to 24 per week starting on October 1. Before increase agreement, only 12 flights were available, a fraction of the over 350 available before the pandemic.

West Coast destinations will add more flights with China more quickly than East Coast destinations. One issue affecting the East Coast is that American carriers are banned from flying over Russian airspace. Both China and the U.S. have to approve the new routes, a slow process, said Ghazi. 

“We’re at the mercy of that process, but everybody is very positive and very enthusiastic,” said Ghazi. “It was exciting to see a lot of applications being made for the return of routes to the United States.” 

While the East Coast waits to get flights again, United has announced plans to add more flights to California from China. The carrier will add daily flights from San Francisco to Beijing in November and to Shanghai in October.

4. 2024 Will Be a Better Year

Due to air service improving slowly, 2024 will be better year for outbound Chinese travel, said Beteta and Ghazi. ‘It’s going to be gradual, The floodgates are not fully open yet,” said Ghazi.

Beteta said she expects China’s return to help fill the hole if there’s an economic slowdown in the U.S.

U.S. tourism businesses have seen a slowdown in revenue growth from their domestic customers as Americans choose to travel abroad.

“As that pent-up demand domestically starts to wane because people now have been free to travel, the timing of China coming on is really going to help the travel economy in California and frankly, nationally.” said Beteta.


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Tags: asia newsletter, california, china, new york city, tourism, Visit California

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