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Influx of Yellowstone-bound Chinese tourists boon to Idaho Falls

By Luke Ramseth Idaho Falls Post Register

Several Idaho Falls hotels offer Wi-Fi instructions in Mandarin.

The Shilo Inn recently hired a Mandarin-speaking receptionist.

Le Ritz serves congee, a popular Chinese rice porridge, and FairBridge Inn & Suites opened a separate breakfast room to accommodate large Chinese tour groups.

It’s all part of an effort by Idaho Falls hospitality businesses to adapt to the exploding number of Chinese tourists traveling to Yellowstone National Park.

“This year it’s out of control,” said Tiffany Harrington, a Comfort Inn manager.

As Yellowstone continues to shatter attendance records, China can take much of the credit for the park’s rise in popularity.

Last year an estimated 500,000 of Yellowstone’s 4 million total visitors were Chinese, and more than 600,000 are expected to travel through the park this season. Experts say the trend is being fueled by looser visa rules, rising middle class salaries, and a growing desire among the younger generation to explore the world.

In Idaho Falls, large groups of Chinese visitors walk the greenbelt, take selfies in front of the falls, and shop for vitamins and snacks at Wal-Mart. Hotels and nearby restaurants are frequently packed. Most of the Chinese tourists traveling through here fly into Salt Lake City.

Local tourism officials and hotel employees say they first noticed a growing number of Chinese tour groups in 2014. “Then in 2015 it exploded, and in 2016 it’s gone crazy,” said Kassie Cain, the assistant general manager at Fairbridge.

This season, in order to have enough space for other travelers, some hotels have capped the number of discounted tour groups that can book rooms.

“For every group I book, I probably turn away two or three,” Cain said.

Reasons behind the surge

The wave of Chinese tourists isn’t specific to Yellowstone – Las Vegas, New York, Los Angeles and several other national parks are also popular U.S. destinations for the Chinese.

Between 2007 and 2014, the number of Chinese visitors to the U.S. increased five-fold, from just under 400,000 to more than 2.1 million, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office. That figure is expected to reach 5.7 million by 2020.

And the Chinese spend big when they travel. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates $215 billion was spent by Chinese travelers abroad last year, more than any other country.

Chinese visitors to America spent about $6,000 each per trip, roughly 30 percent more than other inbound travelers, according to estimates by Brand USA, a travel marketing group backed by the U.S. government.

Changes to visa rules are a big reason for the rapid growth in Chinese tourism, officials say. In 2012, the U.S. streamlined the travel visa application process for the Chinese, and in 2014, the U.S. began offering Chinese tourists multiple-entry visas valid for up to 10 years, which further encouraged trips to the U.S.

For many Chinese, the attraction to Yellowstone has to do with it being a natural place without the severe pollution and big crowds found in larger Chinese cities, said Brian Riley, owner of Old Hand Holdings, a Jackson, Wyoming, marketing company that works with Chinese tour companies.

Riley, who lived around Asia for 30 years, has published a Mandarin language guidebook called “Escape,” and videos describing the area and cultural norms in the U.S.

“They want to come here because it’s the opposite end of the spectrum of what they have in China,” he said.

Haybina Hao, a Chinese tourism expert and vice president of international development with the Kentucky-based National Tour Association, said in an email that Chinese visitors “love to see the ‘extremes’ in the world.”

Yellowstone offers “such diverse natural beauties,” she said, and it “can satisfy the general needs for seeing a lot in a short time.” Much of the park’s popularity can be attributed to social media and travel industry marketing in China, she said. It’s location in the West – where Chinese tourists often land first – also helps.

“It’s not a situation of trying to get them to come,” Riley said. “It’s a situation of managing them when they get here.”

Businesses adapting

Michelle Holt, CEO of the Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce, said she started noticing the increasing numbers of Chinese tourists last summer. She noted their itineraries often don’t allow them to spend a lot of time in the city – but they are here long enough to spend money at a restaurant or pick up supplies at Wal-Mart.

Data on the number of Chinese tourists coming through the area – or the economic impact they are having – is hard to come by.

But hotel managers say anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of their rooms have been filled by Chinese tour groups every night this season. Many could book their hotels full with the groups, but have decided to put a cap on how many they allow because large groups get a discount on room rates, and they want to leave space for other travelers. Most of the groups arrive later in the evening, and are often gone by 8 a.m.

For hotel staff, challenges abound – most having to do with the language barrier.

“Google Translate is an amazing thing,” Cain said. “The staff all have it on their cellphones.”

Another strategy to make communicating easier has been handing out Mandarin language instructions for common questions, such as how to connect to the Wi-Fi, or how to use the waffle maker at breakfast.

Some cultural differences have been striking – and frustrating. While Americans line up at the front desk or for breakfast, for example, Chinese tend to crowd en masse, and will sometimes push and shove. And Chinese patrons tend to talk much more loudly, which some managers said has led to complaints from other visitors.

Ron Obendorf, manager of the Sandpiper Restaurant, said he has noticed a major uptick of Chinese tourists in his restaurant this year. Sometimes, he said, a tour group of 30 or 40 will walk into the restaurant near closing time and “just start sitting down.”

He said he welcomes the added business. His staff, too, is trying to overcome the language barrier using Google Translate. And Obendorf is considering printing a streamlined Mandarin language menu, focused on American meals popular with the Chinese. He said the Sandpiper’s New York steaks are always a big hit.

There are some cultural frustrations, he said, such as Chinese not knowing to leave a gratuity. Waiters sometimes have to “grin and bear it,” he said. But overall, he said it’s been a fun challenge.

“Everybody knows that Yellowstone is getting a lot more travel than they did last year,” Obendorf said. “Our dinner counts are way up. So we like ’em.”

Bus companies are another business benefiting from the Chinese tourism boom. While officials say some Chinese visitors are starting to plan their own itineraries and drive themselves, the vast majority still book a bus, often with 30 or so others.

Kathy Pope, sales manager for Salt Lake Express, said the influx of Chinese tourists “has really helped us grow.” She said charter buses make up about 50 percent of Salt Lake Express’ overall business – and Chinese tour groups book about 65 percent of all its charter buses. The company bought 18 new buses at the beginning of this year to keep pace with rising demand.

Soon, she said, Salt Lake Express will likely need to buy even more buses and hire more drivers and staff. On a recent Thursday, she said every one of the company’s 106 buses was in use.

“It’s due to the Chinese, I have to say,” she said.

Not slowing down soon

Riley said he expects the next phase for Chinese tourism will be trips that are longer and more relaxed. Chinese visitors will want to spend more time in several different places along the way. He said a slower traveling pace would also help allow time for certain cultural differences to be overcome.

Riley said he also is working to start attracting some Chinese tourists in the winter, so they can learn to ski. He hears there is growing interest.

Tom Walsh, chairman of Yellowstone Teton Territory, an eastern Idaho tourism organization, said the influx of Chinese tourists have helped boost regional lodging sales this year by about 20 percent over the same period last year. “The biggest problem we have is we don’t have enough hotels,” he said.

More tour companies are looking farther south, including in Pocatello, to find affordable vacancies, he said.

Don’t expect the growth in Chinese tourists visiting Yellowstone to slow down anytime soon, Walsh said.

“It’s on everybody’s bucket list,” he said. “And the Chinese love it.”

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