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Rose Zhou/MEDILL

Chicago steps up efforts to attract international, especially Chinese, tourists

by Rose Zhou
Jun 11, 2014


Rose Zhou/MEDILL

A family of Asian tourists in Millennium Park.

On a recent Friday evening, Rong Jiang strode onto the Willis Tower Skydeck, the clear observation platform on the iconic building’s 103rd floor, and waved at his wife as she insisted on staying a comfortable distance away on the solid floor to take pictures of him.

“Come on, it’s just like the one on the Shanghai Oriental Pearl Tower,” the 50-year-old human resources executive said to his wife in Chinese as he tried to draw her over. “You can do this!”

Rong Jiang and his wife had traveled to America from Xi’an, China to attend their daughter’s graduation ceremony in Ohio, and to visit the famous Midwest city of Chicago along the way. It was Jiang’s third time in the United States, but his first time in Chicago.

“I’ve been to New York City, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles,” Jiang said. “Chicago is definitely different from every single one of them, and to me, it looks more like one of those coastal cities in Europe.”

Chicago may already be a lure for U.S. vacationers, but to foreign travelers, Chicago is far down on the list (eighth, in fact) of U.S. cities to visit.

Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to change that and is focusing especially on China. Earlier this year, Emanuel increased the city’s annual visitation goal to 55 million visitors by 2020, following his 2013 visit to Beijing.

“As part of my effort to attract more tourists from China, last month I traveled there and had a meeting, as we did, with the head of tourism and a number of tourism services,” Emanuel said in January. “And now we have three offices in China, all promoting tourists to come here to the City of Chicago.”

A record 47 million U.S. visitors came to Chicago in 2013, a 4.4 percent increase from the previous year. The number of international visitors rose 3.9 percent to 1.42 million, but that was slower than the 14.8 percent increase from 2011 to 2012. Eight percent of international visitors came from China in 2012.

Choose Chicago, the city's official tourism marketing organization, has opened 10 offices overseas since 2011. It plans to open a new office in Chengdu, Sichuan province this year – its fourth in China besides Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou offices. Upon completion, Chicago will be the first American city that has tourism offices in southwestern China.

Elizabeth Blackwell, who wrote the 2001 to 2013 editions of Frommer’s Chicago, credits the Chicago tourism offices with helping to boost Chinese visits to Chicago by 29 percent to 111,000 in 2012, compared with 2011.

“Chicago is a great American city, maybe the great American City,” Blackwell said. “We may not have New York’s flash or Los Angeles’ weather. But what we can offer is a typical American spirit of openness and hospitality.”

Timmie Cortina, owner of the Absolutely Chicago Segway Tours, has made sure her company is doing everything it can to attract all tourists, especially foreigners.

“We have tours in foreign languages to serve the international community,” Cortina said. “Probably in the summer, 30 percent of my business is the international consumer. The international market is booming, such as the Chinese market, the Brazilian market, we’ve noticed a lot more from the Ukraine, from Germany, Italy and France. The market is exploding.”

The International Pow Wow (IPW), an annual trade show for inbound travel to the United States, took place in Chicago in April. According to a U.S. Travel Association study, IPW could bring Chicago an additional $1.6 billion in visitor spending over the next three years. Cortina attended the show.

“Introducing my company to these different travel markets and explaining to them that we do conduct tours in foreign languages, we’re capable of that,” Cortina said. “I, in particular, am trying now to cater to the international market so that they can realize that Chicago is a world-class city and that we’re a hidden gem.”

As one of the 160 Chinese delegates who attended IPW, Max Zhang went back home with plenty on his to-do list.

“We are working closely with Choose Chicago to include the city more in our U.S. travel itineraries,” said Zhang, North America regional manager of Ctrip – China’s No. 1 online travel agency. “We also put up a lot of online promotion and advertisements about Chicago. It’s doing well.”

Zhang said he believes that more customers from Ctrip will visit Chicago this year, as they are working to encourage Chinese travelers to tour the city instead of just treating it as an international transfer stop.

“There are five direct flights from mainland China to Chicago,” Zhang said. “Now we want our customers to stay one or two nights in downtown Chicago to take a look at the architecture, and experience the city.”

Kevin Du, CEO of a Los Angles-based online travel agency, offered more suggestions for marketing Chicago tourism to Chinese travelers.

“One of the things you could do to appeal to Chinese travelers is to talk about the Chicago Bulls,” said Kevin Du, CEO of Tours4fun, the largest North America online agency targeting Chinese tourists. “It’s not just for basketball lovers, Michael Jordan is more like a brand name of America to Chinese people.”

Du said sports promotion fits well with Chinese travelers’ demographics. The top age group of his America-bound clients is between 25 and 34 years old.


Young travelers would also be interested in the great universities in Chicago, Du said. As more Chinese students are studying in the U.S., promoting Chicago’s higher education could attract many Chinese parents who want to send their children to the U.S.

“Chicago could package itself as a different city than any other major city in the U.S.,” Du said. “Every year, there are more Chinese travelers coming to the U.S. waiting to explore more. It’s about how you deliver a different image of Chicago and tell Chinese tourists what you can offer.”