Chinese Tourists in Hawai‘i
Dragon 'Em Around: We hopped on the bus with China’s pioneers of leisure travel to see Hawaii through their bleary eyes.
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Such was the case for Lu’s people, who Dragon Tours, agent for the Hawaii leg of their trip, would host for their two days on Oahu. After that they were off to Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Buffalo (with a side trip to Toronto, for those with Canadian visas), New York, Washington, D.C., and, finally, San Francisco. Honolulu was just the first dot on the map.
Escorting them from Shanghai across America and back was the trip leader, Zeng Wei Ji, a boyish 45-year-old who introduces himself to Westerners as “Ricky.” Ricky studied to be an industrial engineer, but, 20 years ago, he got an opportunity with a Hong Kong-based travel company to lead a tour to the United States. He’s been an international trip leader ever since. Originally, his company catered to groups from Hong Kong and Macau, but, in the last few years, it’s expanded to mainland China. Now that’s where almost all his tour groups come from.
Chinese Visitor Annual Spending
The competition among travel agencies for these outbound Chinese travelers is highly competitive. If one company offers an all-inclusive, nine-city, 12-day trip across America for the ultra-rock-bottom low price of, say, $2,000 (as Ricky’s company does), another company will offer the same thing for $1,950. Then another will come along and offer the same deal for $1,900. “It’s a hard business,” Ricky explained. “Everybody undercuts everybody.”
For China’s fledgling world travelers, the smart choice is widely regarded as the package that offers the greatest number of foreign cities for the least amount of money. “They think that is the best deal,” Ricky said. “But they will spend most of their time sitting on buses.”
Tourists from mainland China are not hard to spot, at least to Lu’s seasoned tour-guide eyes. “They don’t dress like the Japanese or the Koreans,” Lu said while waiting at the airport that morning for his group to emerge from customs. Even their suitcases look different, he said: “Their luggage is always more beat up. It looks like it’s had lots of rough handling.”
In contrast to the fashionably dressed mass of Japanese tourists outside the airport’s international terminal, Wu’s 30 travelers, once he’s rounded them up, looked perfectly unassuming in their simple plaids and stripes, denim jeans, starter jackets and sequined sweaters. A few wore bulging fanny packs, and all appeared to wear off-brand, no-nonsense shoes. One otherwise matronly woman wore a T-shirt adorned with a bejeweled heart and the words “Good Love First Time.”
China’s growing ranks of millionaires and billionaires aren’t the ones blasting through Hawaii on tours like these. Among Lu’s group there was an accountant, several retirees and a cagey man who claimed to be a bus driver, then said he was a clerk, but, frankly, had the air of a low-ranking Communist Party official. There were also two young women who worked for different travel agencies. They were each traveling alone, on vacation, and had just met, but were clearly destined to be great friends. To keep accommodation costs down, Ricky had paired them as roommates for the duration.