Shanghai World Expo 2010: U.S. blows an opportunity to attract Chinese tourists.

By John Parker
Reproduced with permission from the blog

Note: The Editorial team of “Chinese tourists Blog” does not necessarily endorse all ideas expressed  in the following article, but whish to publish it because of its quality and its contribution to the debate about appropriate marketing strategies to attract Chinese tourists to the U.S.

One of the most disappointing exhibits at Shanghai’s Expo 2010, which ended October 31, was the U.S. pavilion — a dismal combination of ineptitude and self-loathing political correctness. As an effort to attract Chinese tourists to the U.S. or improve America’s image in China, the pavilion was an epic failure.

It’s not very surprising that Shanghai Expo 2010, which just ended (coincidentally) on Halloween night, never attracted much interest in the U.S. American tourists, already in a penny-pinching mood due to the recession, were reluctant to spring for a transpacific flight ticket and also put off by a certain nervousness about growing Chinese power, which the Expo site itself, purposely dominated by the immense red ziggurat of the China pavilion, only heightened.

Having said that, the Expo as a whole was actually much more interesting and worthwhile than one might have expected. The event’s best national pavilions managed to show off the best aspects of each country with dazzling architecture, lighting, and priceless treasures like the Little Mermaid statue from Copenhagen harbor, the centerpiece of Denmark’s pavilion; or “The Dance Hall in Arles,” a Van Gogh which featured prominently in the French pavilion. The favorite pavilion of this writer was Spain’s, a brilliantly conceived audiovisual experience which managed to tell visitors everything important about Spain, past and present, without boring them for even a second. Spain was also represented by three extremely well done and effective city pavilions, for Bilbao, Barcelona, and Madrid. Actually, Spain’s pavilions were so well done, in comparison to the environmentalist hair-shirt-wearing that characterized many other European pavilions, that a visitor might reasonably conclude that the torch of leadership in Western civilization had passed to Spain for the first time in several centuries.

And then there was the U.S. pavilion, voting “present” at history’s biggest-ever opportunity to win over Chinese tourists. According to the organizers, the pavilion, organized around a “rising to the challenge” theme, was intended to “tell the story of the American spirit of perseverance, innovation, and community-building in a multi-dimensional, hi-tech presentation” and “presented the US as a place of opportunity and diversity where people come together to change their communities for the better.” The reality was quite different: a muddled, disappointing fiasco which was hobbled by a combination of self-flagellating political correctness and cluelessness about what would actually interest Chinese visitors, all exacerbated by procrastination and an embarrassing lack of funds.

The disappointments began with the pavilion’s architecture. The aluminum-clad structure was supposedly intended to resemble “eagles’ wings.” After examining it from every conceivable angle, I still fail to see the resemblance. While not exactly ugly, the structure (which one internet wag compared to a “combination air cleaner and Bose sound system”) was stylistically unimaginative and overly cost-conscious — which might be defensible when building an industrial park in Wichita, Kansas, but made no sense at all when constructing an Expo pavilion intended to show off the country to foreigners.

The attractions within, however, were a far more serious letdown. These basically consisted of three films, which the average visitor could reach only after waiting in the hot sun for several hours. It is illuminating to summarize each of these in turn, then compare what the pavilion organizers were trying to convey with what a typical mainland Chinese visitor would actually think.

The first film, “Welcome to America,” showed various Americans trying to say “welcome to the U.S. pavilion” in bad Chinese. Mildly amusing, it did succeed in its goal of eliciting chuckles from Chinese visitors. However, most people in China think of the U.S. as an extremely powerful and advanced country that China will have to struggle for decades to catch up with; although the state media’s reporting on the U.S. is almost exclusively negative, as is the depiction offered by China’s education system, many Chinese, not trusting their own government, suspect that the U.S. is actually a paradise of wealth and freedom relative to their own country. Any local entering the pavilion with this attitude must have been confused, if not stunned, by “Welcome to America,” which depicted Americans as amiable, slightly dimwitted goofballs.

The second film, “The Spirit of America”, was a series of personal testimonials that were intended to “create a living portrait of the US, [and] personify America’s drive and spirit, while speaking to the power of imagination and partnership.” In actuality, it was a disorganized series of touchy-feely, vaguely environmentalist musings by young children and uncomfortable-looking corporate representatives, whose main purpose seemed to be to fill time between the short welcoming speeches by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama which respectively began and ended the film. (…)

The third and final film, “The Garden,” was the biggest letdown of all. Granted, it was at least technically proficient, with oblong screens and a few cute effects like misting the audience when it rained on screen. However, content-wise, it was an unmitigated disaster. The film was intended to convey a message that people can work together to make their cities better, featuring a story of a young girl who succeeds in turning a small vacant lot into a garden park after overcoming many obstacles. The implementation of this concept might have gone over well with an audience of undergraduates at a second-tier journalism school in the U.S., but as the main attraction at the U.S. Expo pavilion, it was so spectacularly inappropriate and downright clueless that this writer literally cringed watching it.

This was for a number of reasons. At an event where literally every other country present tried to put its best foot forward, this film presented U.S. cities as decaying and backward, which, besides representing an obsession with the negative, is factually incorrect — American cities certainly have bad neighborhoods, but they are not crime-ridden ghettos as a whole. (…)

The self-deprecating nature of the film was totally unsuited for the audience. Self-criticism, in general, is a Western phenomenon; outside the West, self-congratulation is the norm.(…) Westerners win points with their compatriots by “standing up and taking responsibility” when things go wrong. In Asia, historically, people who “stand up and take responsibility” for disasters have usually been decapitated shortly thereafter. Chinese people already believe that their culture is the greatest on earth and China is the greatest country on earth; hence, a self-critical presentation not only will not impress them, but it also will tend only to confirm their already ample prejudices against you. (…)

History will judge the U.S. Expo pavilion as a huge missed opportunity for two reasons. First, a well done pavilion could have helped to ameliorate our chronic trade deficits with China by attracting a generation of mainland Chinese to America’s world-class tourist attractions. Second, the Expo represented a rare opportunity to present a positive image of the U.S. to millions of Chinese visitors. Regrettably, the actual pavilion completely failed on both counts: the organizers were trying so hard to be friendly and welcoming that they forgot to say anything positive about America, the likely result being that an entire generation of Chinese tourists will book tickets to Spain instead. As a U.S. expatriate in China, it appalls me that 7 million Chinese people visited this slab of epic fail with high hopes and are now equating it with America itself. Trust me: we’re going to regret this one later.

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Interview of Mr Ho Kwon Ping, Banyan Tree’s Chairman “Outbound travel from China is huge”

Like much of the hospitality industry, it’s been a tough couple of years for Banyan Tree. The luxury resort operator, which makes the bulk of its profits in Southeast Asia, was hit by a string of events, including the global financial crisis, the Thailand anti-government riots, the Icelandic ash crisis and even the World Cup earlier this year, which benched more tourists at home
But there’s a glimmer at the end of the tunnel, and it’s coming from China.
While Europe was the biggest source of tourists for the hotel pre-crisis, the mainland rules in its post-crisis world.
“China is really changing the game,” says Banyan Tree’s executive chairman and founder, Ho Kwon Ping.  “From a historical perspective, tourism has always been in one direction: broadly speaking, it’s been Europeans visiting exotic places.  There was a slight change when the Japanese started to travel more, but that didn’t make much of a dent.  Then the Koreans started traveling, but that was less of dent.  But outbound travel from China is huge,” he adds.
Tourists from North Asia now account for about 40 percent of guests at its core Southeast Asian hotels, driven largely by a surge in numbers from China, says Ho. Sensing opportunity, Banyan Tree took its capital raising push into the mainland – the company raised 1 billion renminbi, or US$150 million for its Banyan Tree China Hospitality Fund, which closed in September, almost entirely from high-net individuals from China.  The fund will pay for a pipeline of new resort and spa projects there. Several investors are also members of the prestigious Shanghai Travelers’ Club, and are perfectly aware of the new trends of wealthy Chinese outbound travelers.
The Chinese aren’t just traveling within Asia, they are also flocking to destinations worldwide. According to the World Tourism Organization, China overtook France to become the fourth biggest tourism spender in 2009, jumping 21 percent in spite of the sluggish global economy.
Their capacity to splurge on travel has been driving tourism-dependent economies like the Maldives. The Chinese will not only soon become the largest market for the resort island, they are also single-handedly creating new mini-peak seasons where none existed before, says Ho.
“The Chinese are the big salvation for the Maldives… and they go mid-year during Golden Week [in October], not December. [Even] if it’s raining, they don’t mind because they’re not out there to toast themselves,” says Ho. “For [Chinese] honeymooners, the Maldives is romantic even when it’s overcast.”
The Chinese urge to travel got a boost partly due to the government – China’s state council has identified tourism as a major pillar of the domestic economy. The standing-room only crowds who flocked to Banyan Tree’s fund-raising road show attest to that, says Ho. “The yearning to invest in China is very strong.  The stock market is pretty speculative, people have already invested in properties and now they’re looking for other ways to invest.”
Banyan is banking on China as it moves to rebalance its portfolio of resorts, spas and hotel residences.  In the past, about 60 percent of the company’s assets and profits originated from Thailand, which left the company deeply exposed to natural, economic and, most recently, political crises. The firm is now off-loading some of its Thai assets; it recently sold the Dusit Laguna Phuket, part of its Laguna Phuket complex, in August, and is looking for buyers for some its other Thai properties.
Proceeds from the sale will go into its China investments – Banyan has about 15 projects under development across the country. It’s opening four new resorts next year, including two in China and one in Macau.
While the third quarter, traditionally a quiet period for the sector,  remained slow,  bookings for the fourth quarter werestrong, says Ho. Earnings next year could get an extra boost from further sales of Thai properties. “We’re looking at all possibilities,” Ho says. “It’s not a fire sale, we’ll only look at things with a good capital gain. It’s more about rebalancing our portfolio.”