While the current news cycle may seem laser-focused on America’s trade imbalance with China right now, it’s important to remember one area in which the U.S. has the better end of the deal: international travel.
It’s an economic success story, with enormous potential for even more future growth—potential we have barely begun to tap. We haven’t always been on the winning side of this deal, though. Ten years ago, Chinese citizens were still interested in coming to the U.S.—but it was extremely difficult for them to visit, due to regulations imposed by the governments of both countries. However, a series of smart decisions by U.S officials and their Chinese counterparts changed that, causing Chinese travel to the U.S. to skyrocket, and bringing billions of dollars into the pockets of Americans.
One of those decisions? Providing eligible Chinese business and leisure travelers with visas that were valid for up to 10 years.
Before November 2014, most U.S. visitor visas for China were valid for only a year. Now that short-term business and tourist visas are valid for up to ten years, Chinese visitors can plan return trips after a first visit, schedule more frequent trips to see family and friends, or develop business relationships without needing to renew their visas every six months. The results:
- China is now one of the fastest-growing inbound travel markets to the United States. In fact, it’s currently the third-largest overseas inbound travel market to the U.S., behind only the UK and Japan (excluding Canada and Mexico)—and it’s on track to become the largest by 2021.
- Chinese visitors are the biggest spenders of all international travelers to the U.S.—as a whole, Chinese visitors spent $34.8 billion in the U.S. last year (an average of $7,100 per trip), a full 76 percent more than our biggest overall international travel market, Canada.
- International travel is our largest industry export to China, since money Chinese citizens spend on U.S. soil—whether on hotel rooms, shopping, airfare, attraction tickets, dining on transportation—counts as an export. In 2015, the year after the U.S. began offering 10-year visas to Chinese citizens, travel exports to China reached $30 billion, far surpassing any other country. As such, the U.S. currently enjoys a $25 billion travel trade surplus with China.
All of these Chinese visitors (and the money they spent) directly supported 151,000 American jobs in 2016—that’s no small part of the 1.2 million directly supported by international travelers from every country in the world last year. There is enormous untapped potential for future travel, as well. According to China’s Tourism Administration, 122 million Chinese citizens traveled overseas in 2016. The U.S. welcomed just under three million of those travelers last year—but could secure a much larger share of that thriving market if we continue all of our successful efforts to attract Chinese visitors.
Chinese arrivals to the U.S. have grown more than 800 percent in the past ten years, thanks to a series of intelligent steps like the ten-year visa expansion. This growth was helped along, too, by the U.S. State Department’s decision to increase consular staff in China, significantly decreasing visa processing delays. As of November 2016, it took an average of just four days for an eligible Chinese citizen in Beijing to receive a U.S. visa—and that has meant jobs and growth where there may have been none before.
Further, Chinese visitors aren’t just stopping in the major gateway cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. Last year, both governments recognized 2016 as the U.S.-China Tourism Year, and Brand USA, our country’s destination marketing agency, smartly focused on bringing Chinese visitors to all corners of our country. The heartland of America, home to many of our country’s most iconic national parks and monuments, has therefore been a major beneficiary of this rapid growth in Chinese visitors, thanks in large part to Brand USA’s aggressive in-country marketing efforts. China is now one of the top five sources of overseas visitors to these sites. That means that Chinese visitors are now a major supporter of non-exportable jobs in the “gateway regions” around U.S. national parks, often rural areas or smaller metro areas.
My colleagues and I like to say that international travel is a truly “made in America” product. It’s also one area in which we’re truly winning with China. Our government needs to embrace policies that safely expand, not restrict travel, if we’re going to continue to win, however. Expanding visa validity for China not only cemented the U.S. as the top long-haul destination for Chinese travelers, but has also bolstered the economic benefits of travel around the country.
Bringing Chinese visitors to see all that the U.S. has to offer is good for American workers. Attracting even more of them, and expanding international travel overall, will be even better.