A group of Chinese tourists posed for photos yesterday before departing on a United Airlines flight to Washington, D.C., at Beijing Airport.
Chinese travel to the U.S. under new agreement
The first wave of tourists left yesterday for Hawaii and other mainland destinations
BEIJING » Chinese tour groups left for Hawaii and other places in the U.S. yesterday under a new agreement that the American travel industry hopes will bring in billions of dollars.
An initial group of more than 200 tourists was flying from the cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou for a 12-day visit that will take them to destinations including New York, Washington and Los Angeles. The trips cost about $4,000 each.
Chinese with visas have long been permitted to travel to the U.S. but the agreement signed last December considerably eased the way by conferring China's "approved destination status" on the country.
That allowed Chinese travel agencies to market package tours to American destinations and permitted U.S. destinations to advertise directly to the Chinese public.
A 22-year-old college student who gave her name as Miss Yang said she was visiting the United States for the first time and was heading to Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Hawaii.
"I'm very happy and excited," she said before rushing off to check in for her flight at Beijing's Capital Airport.
Yang said participants had been told they would not be allowed to leave the group at any time during the trip, perhaps reflecting lingering concerns over illegal immigration. U.S. visas are getting easier for Chinese citizens to obtain, with only about 20 percent having their requests rejected. Still, many still find the process daunting.
The U.S. tends to rank at the top of desired foreign destinations alongside France and Australia. Even without the new agreement, the Commerce Department had predicted the number of Chinese visitors would rise to 579,000 by 2011. Travel industry observers say the number could rise far beyond that.
In Hawaii, tourism officials are looking to China and South Korea to help offset continuing declines in the number of visitors from Japan, the state's largest source of foreign tourists.
Chinese tourists accounted for 56,000 of the 7.4 million visitors who came to Hawaii in 2007. More than 1.3 million Japanese visited Hawaii the same year.
The first direct air service between Hawaii and China is expected to begin at the end of July.
Mega Global Airway, a charter airline based in Beijing, eventually plans six weekly flights between Honolulu and the Chinese cities of Tianjin and Hangzhou.
But experts say Hawaii still faces significant obstacles in attracting more Chinese visitors, including visa requirements and competition from other destinations such as Singapore and Guam that are also vying for Chinese tourists.
The soaring cost of fuel also could hamper growth from the Chinese tourist market. Fuel prices have forced two U.S. carriers to request one-year postponements in launching of new services to China.