They posed with a Bart Simpson look-alike, mugged in front of a real Van Gogh, snapped up Coach bags and gawked at the scantily clad women in the city of stars they had heard so much about.
The 240 Chinese tourists who landed in Los Angeles this week also made history as the first leisure tour group allowed to visit the United States since a new U.S.-China agreement allowing such travel was signed in December.
The new pact is projected to bring in at least 66,000 new Chinese tourists spending $62 million in Los Angeles in the next year. That would represent a 50% jump from the previous year and cement the Asian nation’s status as the fastest-growing tourist market for Los Angeles and the world.
In the past, business travelers and students have accounted for the bulk of visitors to L.A. from China. But the pact allows Chinese travel agencies to offer group tours to America for the first time to residents of Beijing and Shanghai as well as Guangdong and six other provinces. Advertising was allowed beginning May 15.
Even before the agreement went into effect, Chinese tourists spent more per person than other foreign visitors to Los Angeles -- even the fabled loose-fisted Japanese. Buoyed by their booming economy, they averaged $929 per visit in 2006, according to LA Inc., the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Visitors included Yang Zhu Jian, a retired schoolteacher, who said she stood in line for hours at her Shanghai travel agency for a chance she had dreamed about for years -- to visit America. She and others toured Universal Studios, the Getty Center and the Hollywood Walk of Fame, among other landmarks, but her favorite activity was a shop-till-you-drop trip to Palm Springs.
There, Yang said, she snapped up Coach bags, Dior sunglasses, Dunhill belts, Nike shoes, Tommy Hilfiger backpacks -- $2,000 all told.
“We’ve been told about the U.S. for so long,” Yang said. “Now we finally have a chance to see it with our own eyes.”
Anticipating the visitor boom, Los Angeles opened a tourism office in China in 2006, the first U.S. city to do so, and the Southern California tourism industry is gearing up for what it sees as its biggest and hottest new market.
The Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City has begun to offer Chinese breakfasts of dim sum, fried rice and chow mein on request and supplies Chinese visitors with such favored amenities as disposable slippers, toothbrushes as well as green and oolong tea. The hotel also has assigned a Mandarin-speaking account executive, Stephanie Pai, to handle the China market.
Similar moves are underway at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel, which greeted the Chinese visitors this week with welcome letters in Mandarin.
Universal Studios literally rolled out the red carpet for the tourists at their official welcome reception Tuesday. The gala featured a Blues Brothers act, Simpson family characters and speeches by Chinese dignitaries and Los Angeles city and tourism officials. The crowd of travelers gasped and cheered when an American Express executive announced each would receive a $50 travelers check.
Not all of the tourists may have known the Simpsons characters they were posing with, but Chinese travel agent Susan Wong knew at least one Hollywood star.
“I’ve heard about Hollywood for a long time, and I’ve seen the movies of the California leader Arnold Schwarzenegger,” said Wong, whose tour group wore bright T-shirts emblazoned with “First Tour Group to USA from (Guangdong) China 2008.”
Universal Studios has hired Mandarin-speaking guides to run a daily bus tour and printed up park maps in Chinese. Riding the tour bus this week, the visitors squealed and snapped photos of fake floods, fires and the shark from “Jaws.”
Starline Tours has developed a prerecorded Los Angeles city tour in Mandarin and Chinese-language maps for its hop-on-and-off double-decker sightseeing buses.
Yu Wei Hua, an assistant general manager with Shanghai China Travel International Ltd., said people began lining up at his agency the day it was announced in May that America was open for tourism. His inaugural tour sold out within hours. Six different groups from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong followed different itineraries, with some planning to visit San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii.
Los Angeles gained an early foothold in the China market two years ago by opening its tourism office in Beijing, which is jointly operated by Los Angeles World Airports and LA Inc.
“We couldn’t sit still as the Gateway to the Pacific and not get a head start on others we compete against to make sure our tour operators and travel industry members are well-positioned for the China market,” said Mark Liberman, president and chief executive of LA Inc.
The convention bureau is helping tour operators train Mandarin-speaking guides and has launched an expanded Chinese website. Tourism officials are also developing themed packages focusing on sports, museums, architecture and shopping to expand Chinese visitors’ Los Angeles experiences.
“There are only three things about L.A. that Chinese tour guides have focused on: Disneyland, Universal Studios and Hollywood,” said Jamie Yang Lee, the regional director for the city’s Beijing office. “There is so much more to explore.”
That’s what many of the tourists said they discovered during their inaugural visit.
At the Getty Center, the tourists spent about half an hour winding their way through several exhibits. The group, mostly retirees armed with digital cameras and bags with Chinese-language maps and other gifts from the Getty, chattered as they walked though the exhibits.
“Are all of these authentic?” one asked in awe.
Zhang Rui Jiu, 56, wiggled her way through the crowds to get a shot of a Van Gogh. She had put off a dream visit to America for years because the Beijing doctor was too busy to travel.
Her trip held a few surprises: people “barely dressed” in public, she said, and a city smaller and less modern than she had imagined. Fellow travelers complained about too much cheese, cold milk and indoor smoking bans, she said.
But Zhang said her biggest shock was the kindness of strangers. At the airport, for instance, someone cautioned her to put on more layers to ward off the cold.
“Once I got here -- it really opened my eyes,” she said. “That we’re able to see this today warms our hearts. There are some things that we just can’t imagine in China.”
As she posed for another photo outside the museum, against the downtown skyline, others admired the view:
“There’s L.A.,” one said. “And look! Further out, there’s China!”