As Chinese New Year nears, US cities vie for tourism dollars

The Chinese New Year celebration begins in less than a week, but several U.S. cities have been spending months – even years – luring China’s nouveau riche to America for the seven-day celebration.

Wealthy Chinese, anxious to avoid jam-packed train stations and crowded tourist attractions at home, are heading abroad in bigger numbers than ever. The U.S. has become a prime getaway destination, with 1.5 million Chinese tourists visiting the U.S. in 2012, and spending more than $8.8 billion, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.  By 2020, the number is expected to quintuple.


"Chinese people like visiting the U.S. for luxury shopping, outlet shopping and because there are so many famous sites to see," said Zhong Xin, an accountant from Beijing who is planning to visit New York next week.

According to a recent Travelzoo-Asia Pacific survey, 29 percent of Chinese respondents who were planning to travel abroad this year are choosing to come to the United States. Of those who come to America, 46 percent visit California, where big cities, natural beauty and countless attractions beckon. Thirty-one percent travel to New York, and still others fan out to cities such as Boston, or opt for tour packages that cover multiple locations.

Many well-heeled Chinese leisure travelers are drawn to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue boutiques, ritzy hotels and the outlet malls located a short drive outside of the city.

Shop owners are decorating their shops with images of this year's zodiac symbol, the Horse, and staffing their stores with Mandarin-speaking associates. After all, as Robert Armstrong, specialty markets manager at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, says, shopping is "a main priority" for their Chinese leisure visitors.

Zhang Lichun, 32, told she and her fiancé have plans to travel from Shanghai to New York for the holiday.

"We’ll check into the hotel and then head straight to Louis Vuitton and Cartier,” she said. “This is our first time in New York and we want to enjoy ourselves and spend money."

Making Chinese clientele feel at home is a main priority for the Waldorf, says Matt Zolbe, Director of Sales and Marketing, who also notes that while the hotel "does not have extraordinary gestures targeting the Chinese New Year" they have at least one Mandarin-speaking staff member at the front desk and at each of their three restaurants year-round, one of which serves Chinese breakfast specialties like congee and dim sum.

Waldorf employees have also "received special training to educate them on Chinese cultural preferences" and rooms for Mainland visitors are outfitted in advance with electric kettles for tea and noodles, Chinese language magazines and slippers.

For smaller cities like Boston, however, attracting Chinese tourist dollars is less about luxury shopping and more about "embracing what Massachusetts has to offer: our cultural assets, fine dining and the fact that we're an iconic American city where you can get the American story," says Betsy Wall, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

The state’s reputation as a tech center and for academic excellence at the preparatory, undergraduate and graduate levels is another attraction. Wall said that Chinese people with discretionary income have thought about Massachusetts and many aspire to their children to universities in Massachusetts.

"Massachusetts is already an established brand because of our colleges,” Wall said. “There are 13,000 students from China currently studying in Massachusetts, so we are well known for education and all the positive associations that come with that."

In 2012, about 10 percent of all Chinese visitors to the U.S. went to Massachusetts, even though the state "hadn't really promoted ourselves in that market," said Wall.

Going forward, the Office of Travel and Tourism hopes to take advantage of the fact that starting in June, Hainan Airlines will offer direct air service from Beijing to Boston, making it easier than ever for Mainlanders to visit the Bay State.

"The fact that we'll have Beijing to Boston service this summer has really put China on the radar for marketing managers. Anyone in marketing in Boston is aware that this is really going to boom."

The New Year is China's biggest holiday and also its longest at more than two weeks.

This year's holiday celebrations begin the evening of Jan. 31, when families will gather together to eat a traditional meal of dumplings and other delicacies representing wealth and good fortune. Because so many rural Chinese have migrated to the cities in search of work in the past three decades, this holiday is now the only time all year when extended families have enough time off to travel back home and celebrate together.