Rebuilding Asia Tourism 7-28-2003

Agents part of China's plans

By: Lisa Jennings

China tourism officials, moving slowly to allow the fear of SARS to fade, have begun launching a recovery program that includes plans to work more closely with U.S. travel agents.

The China National Tourist Office (CNTO) of Los Angeles is planning advertising campaigns, and in six cities including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, agents will be invited to mini-trade-shows in late September, said director Yan Wang.

A cornerstone of the recovery plan is the launch of China’s first specialist program for U.S. travel agents.

The Certified China Specialist (CCS) program, as it will be called, will require four weeks of study at home and passing a test. The training will eventually be accredited by the Institute of Certified Travel Agents, said Wang.

China specialists must sell at least three packages the first year, and each subsequent year, to remain active. Member benefits will include invitations to fam trips and agent events, mailings with updated tourism information and tour operator products, and incentives for top-selling agents.

Details will be released at the Pacific Asia Travel Association Western Chapter’s PATA U meeting in Indian Wells, Calif. Oct. 9-12, as well as Sita World Travel product seminars through the fall.

Tourism to China was booming before the SARS outbreak brought a virtual halt to U.S. travel there. Mainland China saw the number of U.S. travelers decline 82 percent in May compared with the previous year, according to the most recent statistics available, said Wang.

The CNTO’s first priority, said Wang, “is to recover the confidence of the U.S. public.”

Though travel advisories for China were dropped in June, and tour operators have already started promoting deeply discounted deals for China travel, Wang said the tourist office’s efforts will begin in earnest in August.

“People need a certain period of time to get rid of the image of SARS,” said Wang. “We want them back to China as soon as possible, but need time for people to accept that China is safe.”

Unlike Hong Kong, which saw an influx of government funding for post-SARS tourism promotions, the CNTO’s Western office in Los Angeles is not expecting any budget increase. The office operates on a $200,000 to $250,000 annual budget.

Tour operators say their promotions so far are selling well.

Ritz Tours, for example, offered a 10-day China and Yangtze River tour, with airfare from Los Angeles or San Francisco, all meals and attractions included, for $999.

The 320 spaces available were 90 percent booked within a week, said Evan Chan, director of Ritz Tours’ Asia division.

“We were hesitant about discounting,” said Chan, because Ritz Tours is a “five-star brand.”

“You run the risk of hurting yourself,” said Chan. “But it’s what the market needs right now.”

Abercrombie & Kent is offering a 5 percent discount on select China itineraries booked before Aug. 31 for travel before Dec. 31.

But George Morgan-Grenville, president of Abercrombie & Kent Inc., said hotels in China have been reluctant to discount because they have already taken a financial hit during the SARS outbreak.

Instead, A&K is working with hotels to offer added value, such as room upgrades or dinners at the China Club.

In addition to offering discounts, Pacific Delight Tours is operating tours with a minimum of two people, as opposed to the six to 10 that would have been required pre-SARS, said Irene Chen, director of tour development.

Expectations for the fall are low, but the CNTO and tour operators are pushing the Yangtze River at a tourist attraction.

Construction on the Three Gorges dam project was completed in June and water levels are rising. Within the next several years, many of the river valleys attractions will be flooded.

But the rising reservoir has opened up new tributaries giving travelers better access to sights they previously would have missed, said Morgan-Grenville.

Pacific Delight Tours, for example, will be offering 12-day agent fam trips on the Yangtze in September and November, with a shorter trip likely in October, which is unusual in high season.

“We think people who have been to China before will want to see the Yangtze River now,” said Mary Frances Barnett, Pacific Delight’s regional sales manager.

“There are some new sites open, and some older sites are still above water.” A&K is also offering agent fam trips, said Morgan-Grenville. “We believe that product knowledge sells at the end of the day.”