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Visits To The U.S. By Chinese Tourists Are Declining


Turns out tourists are not visiting America like they used to, especially those from China. NPR's Alina Selyukh explores why.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: The country's top tourist destination, New York City, offers lots of reasons to visit - a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, a selfie in Times Square, a taste of America's most venerable traditions.

JESSIE ZHENG: I love brunch (laughter).

SELYUKH: Is brunch enough of a reason to come to America?

ZHENG: One of the reasons (laughter).

SELYUKH: Let's call it the draw of New York's bountiful food scene. This young woman told me her name is Jessie Zheng, and she's visiting from China - one of almost 80 million foreign travelers the United States expects this year. That number has been climbing for years, but lately, something changed. Here's Tori Emerson Barnes of the U.S. Travel Association.

TORI EMERSON BARNES: We're losing market share to other countries, and that's a problem. We have a much slower growth than our competitors, like Spain and Australia and Canada.

SELYUKH: At a time when global tourism is booming, travel to America is not. This is particularly true for one group - visitors from China. They were coming to the U.S. in record numbers until last year, when their visits declined for the first time in over a decade. For U.S. businesses, it's a big deal because Chinese tourists are big spenders.

EMERSON BARNES: I mean, they spend on average $6,700, versus the traditional international visitor who spends $4,200 when they come.

SELYUKH: But here's what's happening - first, the American visas. Sometimes Chinese tourists have to wait more than a month to get one. Plus, some of the U.S. government policies on global trade and immigration aren't welcoming, says Milton Pedraza, CEO of the consulting firm The Luxury Institute.

MILTON PEDRAZA: Certainly, the perception out there for people who want to study or parents who want to send their kids abroad is that their kids are not as welcome now in the United States. There's a feeling, even by wealthy people, that they're not wanted.

SELYUKH: In fact, earlier this summer, the Chinese government issued warnings against travel to the U.S., citing risks of gun violence and interrogations by authorities. Also, a very influential factor is the value of the U.S. dollar. It's been strong compared to many other currencies, including the Chinese yuan, in part because of the trade tensions. That makes U.S. travel more expensive for foreigners. And finally, Chinese tourists just travel differently now. Here's Christopher Haywood from New York City's marketing group NYC & Company.

CHRISTOPHER HAYWOOD: It used to be that the Chinese traveled like the Americans traveled to Europe in the '80s and '90s - in big groups.

SELYUKH: Now more of them come independently and don't splurge on stuff as much.

HAYWOOD: What they're seeking are experiences. They're not seeking necessarily the high-ticket item, to go buy, you know, Rolex watches.

SELYUKH: All this is starting to have real impact on companies like department stores and luxury retailers. They count on tourists to buy a lot, pay full price, never make any returns. Recently, Macy's, Coach and Tiffany's all said declines in tourism are hurting sales. Many stores like the Saks Fifth Avenue on New York's famous shopping strip are now staffed with Mandarin speakers or have a concierge service for Chinese visitors. Some hotels around here offer tea kettles and slippers for Chinese guests. Tourist destinations across the country are investing in marketing on WeChat, China's hugely popular social app.

When I talked to Jessie Zheng, the tourist who loves brunch, she is out shopping.

ZHENG: The Fifth Avenue - buy some clothes.

SELYUKH: But she only has one small bag in her hand. This is her second time in America, but the reason she's here? She decided to tack on a few days in New York to her original trip to Canada.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "RETURN TO AIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
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