Jennifer Youssef
The Detroit News

Michigan tourism officials are looking to lure thousands of Chinese travelers to the Great Lakes State during the next few years as the Asian nation's burgeoning middle class takes to the air to visit the United States.

Their efforts come in the wake of a tourism agreement between the U.S. and China that will increase leisure travel from China as well as a new nonstop flight between Detroit and Shanghai, China's automotive and financial capital, set to begin in June.

"There's a growing number of affluent Chinese and they are going everywhere," said George Zimmermann, vice president of Travel Michigan, the state's tourism advertising firm. "We don't want to miss this opportunity."

Zimmerman and representatives from the Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau and The Henry Ford attended the China International Travel Mart in Shanghai in November to promote the state's attractions and amenities.

The state also is considering stationing a travel representative in Asia (Michigan has some in Europe). Some 115 agencies from across the country were at the tourism trade fair vying for a piece of China's growing leisure travel market.

"If we can get a piece of that, that would be fantastic," Zimmermann said.

More Chinese visitors
The U.S. and China signed an agreement last year to bolster travel between the two countries. The deal will increase the number of Chinese visitors to 580,000 by 2011, the U.S. Commerce Department said. Previously, there were restrictions on group and other leisure travel from China to the U.S.

The agreement also makes it possible for tourism officials and destinations like The Henry Ford to market their attractions in China.

The United States is becoming an increasingly popular destination for Chinese travelers. In 2007, China ranked as the 16th largest international market for the United States, according to the Commerce Department.

While industry experts expect most Chinese tourists to visit large cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Michigan is not out of the realm of possibilities with its natural attractions, including the Great Lakes, automotive sites, casinos, sporting events and shopping.

Michigan, too, has a major advantage: A new direct flight route on Northwest Airlines from Shanghai will make Detroit one of only three cities in the U.S. with direct service from China. The others are Chicago and New York.

Chinese are top spenders
Last year Chinese visitors spent an average of $6,000 in the U.S., about twice the next-highest foreign visitors' group, according to the Commerce Department. If even a fraction of the estimated 580,000 visitors come to Michigan, it would be a boon to the state's $18.1 billion tourism industry, the second-largest sector of the Michigan economy.

China is "a burgeoning economic powerhouse," said George Moroz, president of the Tourism Industry Coalition of Michigan, a statewide organization of tourism professionals.

Moroz, who is involved in the strategic planning process at The Henry Ford, said the many Michigan entities -- airlines, airport and Michigan Economic Development Corp. -- interested in forming partnerships with the Chinese should work together.

"It seems to me on a number of different fronts that there are a lot of things in the works and we should try to coordinate and support each other's efforts," he said. "There's a lot of activity in China right now. There are some real opportunities to tap into."

About 100 million tourists visited Michigan in 2007, Zimmermann said.

The state has made an effort to broaden its regional marketing. Travel Michigan expanded its successful Pure Michigan campaign this year to include Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, and St. Louis, Mo. The ads -- airing in Chicago, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Ontario as well -- feature the voice of actor Tim Allen describing the state's natural attractions.

Chinese love shopping
Almost every other state had representation at the tourism trade show in China, each trying to get media attention and form partnerships with Chinese agencies, said Tim Tyrrell, director of Megapolitan Tourism Research Center at Arizona State University's College of Public Programs. Asian tourists' love of shopping is well known and if a state or tourism entity can create a vacation package that includes a lot of it, it's likely to draw many visitors.

"I think it could be very big," he said. "China is a huge market and there's plenty of (tourists) to go around."


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