US tour operators could face long wait for large-scale return of Chinese travelers

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While the U.S. travel industry is anxiously awaiting the return of Chinese visitors, the timing will largely depend on when Beijing decides to ease outbound travel restrictions.

Rashaad Jordan

U.S. tour operators have been frantically making numerous preparations to be ready to welcome foreign guests since the White House announced last month that the country would reopen fully vaccinated international air travelers.

And those preparations were advanced after the Biden administration introduced Nov. 8 as the reopening date.

But while many travel companies have enjoyed an increase in bookings in recent weeks, U.S. tour operators, a sector of the travel industry hard hit by 18-month travel restrictions due to its great dependence on foreign guests, they face another critical problem. They are unlikely to welcome the immediate return of a large number of travelers from one of the country’s most lucrative markets, China. There are numerous hurdles that must be overcome before many potential Chinese visitors can reach the US

As for domestic travel, a Chinese health official on Sunday urged new limits on inter-provincial travel, as many new cases of Covid were linked to tourist groups.

“Currently, the Chinese government prohibits all travel agents from promoting or organizing outings for groups and (fully independent travelers),” said Gloria Lan, CEO of TourAmerica and board member of the International Inbound Travel Association.

This is in addition to Beijing’s decision to stop issuing and renewing passports for non-urgent reasons, including leisure travel. And Lan admits that it is difficult to predict when restrictions on Chinese citizens traveling internationally will be reduced.

He also cites another difficulty Chinese travelers will experience in getting to the U.S. “Many flights between the U.S. and China have been canceled or reduced and there are no signs of resuming pre-pandemic flights,” he said.

Glen Hemingson, Alaskan Skylar Travel’s director of business development, sees more bureaucracy preventing a large number of Chinese travelers from coming to the U.S. shortly after the Nov. 8 reopening.

“The problem we have is with visas,” he said. “Visa applications can often be quite slow.”

Undoubtedly, the U.S. travel industry is eager for the Chinese government to facilitate international travel for its citizens and begin the process to reverse the declining number of Chinese visitors that had begun before the pandemic. Many attributed the fall to a trade war between the two countries.

Attracting a large number of Chinese travelers would give a huge post-pandemic boost to the U.S. economy: Visitors to the world’s most populous country spent approximately $ 33.5 billion in 2019, ranking first among international travelers.

But is there any optimism that Chinese travelers will travel internationally again? James Jianzhang Liang, chief executive of Trip.com, China’s largest online travel agency, expressed confidence last month that Chinese travelers would eventually resume international travel due to rising rates of vaccination worldwide.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control approved the SinoVac vaccine, the main one distributed in China, and that could increase the chances of a large number of Chinese visiting the U.S. again.

Problems related to COVID-19 are a major concern for potential Chinese visitors to the United States. According to last month’s China Traveler Sentiment Report, 87% of the country’s consumers considered the United States to be the safest country to visit among a list of 13 destinations, largely due to Covid. waves.

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 alleviate the concerns Chinese guests have about Covid?

When asked, Hemingson admitted that he is lucky that his typical Chinese visitors are aware of the precautions needed to avoid Covid, especially since China has dealt with other viruses before 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 disinfected and providing masks and handwashing facilities. Meanwhile, Lam said tour operators will need to provide access to the PCR testing facilities.

An important question remains: when will Chinese travelers begin to return to the U.S. in large numbers?

Lan believes the increase in the number of visitors will not occur until after next year’s Chinese New Year, which falls on February 1st. But only a little over three months are left, and of course the Chinese government should ease the restrictions on internationalization. travel.

“However, we expect a big wave to return to the United States,” he said, although he believes tensions between the U.S. and China, in his view, are the cause of declining Chinese visits to the U.S. they will not cool down soon even after the pandemic.

Hemingson also shares Lan’s optimism about a greater return for Chinese travelers in 2022. “If things continue in the same direction they are happening right now (referring to rising vaccination rates), I think that we will see many things. of visitors, for us, in the winter of 2022/2023, “said the Alaska Skylar Travel executive.

During a typical pre-Covid year, Alaska Skylar Travel attracted between 3,000 and 4,000 guests during its busy winter season. About 40 percent of its clientele came from China.

Although Alaska Skylar Travel does not welcome as many Chinese guests as it expects next year, Hemingson said the company structure offers a lot of flexibility, mainly the ability to increase or decrease staffing 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 United States in an average year, as do most of its visitors during the summer.

And the break has given tour operators the opportunity to develop more excursions. He said his company plans to launch excursions to Mexico aimed at Chinese travelers, which he described as new opportunities in case guests decide not to visit the United States.

Meanwhile, Hemingson sees the creation of new trips as a possibility for this company, despite some concerns about its immediate future.

“This winter will be a test ground as we submerge our toes back in the water,” Hemingson said, as Skylar Travel had suspended operations from March 2020 to May 2021.

But while the company had been cautious in developing new offerings during its break due to uncertainty about how many guests it would host again, Hemingson said a strong winter season would lead Skylar Travel to create more excursions. .

“Once the mainland market (China) opens, it will be robust,” he said.

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