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South Florida Starting to Court the Next Big
 Thing in Tourism: Visitors from China!

By Doreen Hemlock, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Mar. 6, 2010--South Florida is starting to court the next big thing in tourism: visitors from China.

Broward and Palm Beach counties are working with state tourism agency Visit Florida to lure Chinese tourists, providing materials for travel trade shows in China and welcoming delegations of Chinese travel agents and press to help spread the word about what South Florida offers.

On a recent Friday, a group of eight Chinese travel writers visited Fort Lauderdale, taking a water taxi tour, shopping on Las Olas Boulevard, as well as sampling shrimp and steak at Shula's on the Beach restaurant, escorted by staff from the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Accompanying the group: Vicky Miao, a Chinese marketer who works for Visit Florida in Shanghai. She touts the state to the estimated 300 million people in China's middle- and upper-income groups who might consider an overseas trip.

"We're really enjoying the sunshine here. It's cold in Shanghai and Beijing now," Miao said.

Another Chinese visitor marveled at the unusual hand-crafted mask from South America she bought on Las Olas and dreamed of the lifestyle in the waterfront mansions that she passed on the water taxi.

"If I had a lot of money, I could live there. I'd feel like a movie star," said Grace Zhong, an editor at Voyage, a top travel magazine.

Chinese travel abroad is rising, as China's economy surges.

This year, the number of Chinese visiting the United States is forecast to jump 15 percent to 556,000, rising faster than any other major source nation though still comprising less than 1 percent of total foreign arrivals to the country, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

By 2020, the number of Chinese traveling abroad to all nations is set to double to 100 million a year, making China the No. 4 source of tourists to the world after Germany, Japan and the United States, according to the World Tourism Organization.

Visit Florida is taking the lead in marketing the state to the Chinese, participating in travel shows in China and distributing materials in Mandarin that showcase separate Florida counties.

The Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau collaborated on one recent promotion, and so, was able to hand out local information in Mandarin to visiting Chinese travel writers when they recently toured the Flagler Museum, said bureau spokesman Kenneth Morgan.

Hotels keen on international guests also are eyeing China. But Walter Banks, owner of Fort Lauderdale's Lago Mar Resort & Club, said he's inclined to work initially through the tourism bureau and Visit Florida to reach Chinese travelers -- not market directly in China on his own.

"It's always good to start working on new markets ever so gradually," Banks said.

Just how many Chinese now visit Florida is not known, but the number may be approaching 10 percent of those traveling to the states -- which could mean maybe 50,000 this year, said Bruce Bommarito, executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Association and a China travel specialist.

Florida focuses international marketing on Europe and Latin America, regions that long have been staples for Florida tourism.

But the state is increasing China efforts, leveraging Florida International University's 4-year-old hospitality program in Tianjin that trains Chinese students, annual meetings that bring together tourism chiefs from U.S. states and Chinese provinces and a growing push from Miami that started in 2006.

Bill Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, has been attending annual travel shows in China and arranged for Chinese groups to film in Miami, including a beauty pageant from Hong Kong. He's now working on ways to improve Miami's airline connections with China.

This spring, when the U.S. Travel Association holds its annual Pow Wow trade show showcasing U.S. travel. Chinese TV crews will film the show in Orlando.

"The potential is tremendous for Florida," Bommarito said.

He cited a recent survey in China that asked people where'd they'd go if money and visas were no concern. The United States came out tops, edging out Paris, he said. "And when they visit the United States, they're already looking for new destinations. They're saying "OK, we saw California. We saw New York. Now, let's look at Florida."

Doreen Hemlock can be reached at dhemlock@sunsentinel.com or 305-810-5009.

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Copyright (c) 2010, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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