The 28 Chinese tourists arrived haggard and bleary-eyed at Los Angeles International Airport, looking to grab their bags and get on the bus to their hotel.
They weren’t expecting to see Jason Wang, who headed them off at the luggage carousel. Wang, a 54-year-old tour guide from West Covina, passed out his rate sheets and asked why they hadn’t hired an American like him to show them the sights.
As the visitors exchanged confused looks, a middle-aged woman stepped forward and said she was the tour leader. She brandished a U.S. passport identifying her as April Colvin of Chicago, and angrily accused Wang of trying to hijack her customers.
“This is not good,” she said, in Mandarin. “You have no right to bother them.”
As she led the contingent away to their bus, Wang explained how matters had come to this.
“I have a right to work,” he said. “I have a right to earn for food.”
Business should be booming for Wang and other Southern California tour guides who specialize in escorting big-spending Chinese tourists. Thanks to China’s growing prosperity, more than 525,000 Chinese traveled to the U.S. last year, a 133% bump over 2002, according to the U.S. government.
The problem is that Chinese tour groups are increasingly bringing along their own escorts, usually Chinese citizens but occasionally Americans who travel abroad. (Colvin said she was hired while she was in Beijing visiting her mother).
It’s a disturbing trend for professional American guides, especially since Chinese tourists are among the highest-spending visitors to the U.S. In 2009, Chinese travelers spent an average of $6,800 per person per visit, including airfare, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. By 2020, China will become the world’s fourth-largest source of tourists, the United Nation’s World Tourism Organization predicts.
“These visitors keep coming and we should be getting more work,” said Dong Lin, a spokesman for the China Inbound Travel Assn., a group of about 300 tour guides and local businesses that serves Chinese tourists. “Our colleagues in China have taken advantage of the situation.”
On the other side of the globe, travel agents in China say the tourists they are sending to the U.S. seldom need an American guide. In most cases, they say, Chinese tourists just want to know where to shop, how to buy theme park tickets and how to use slot machines.
Arthur Chin, general manager of the Guangdong Tiantian Holiday International Travel Service in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, said only about 30% of his tour groups hire American-based tour guides, which he arranges through partners in the U.S. The rest tend to view guides as obsolete.
“About half our group members have already visited the U.S.,” Chin said. “Sometimes they just want to rent a car and go do things themselves. Many speak English, probably better than these [U.S.-based] tour guides. They went to school at UCLA or somewhere in Boston.”
The conflict has led to at least half a dozen confrontations in Southern California — such as the one last month at LAX — between American guides and leaders of Chinese tour groups. That has angered some travel agents in China, who have threatened to ask China’s tourism board to issue a travel warning for Los Angeles.
Wang Suqi, president of Beijing-based Total Travel International Travel Service, claims that one of his tour leaders was punched by an American tour guide at Universal Studios Hollywood, and now his tour leaders have asked to be transferred to different tours in Europe and Southeast Asia.
“They’re very afraid,” Wang said. “Even our customers are asking what’s going on.”
The competition for the Chinese tourism business was set off in 2007 when China, for the first time, allowed commercial travel agents to book group pleasure trips to the U.S. But China did not mandate that Chinese tourists hire accredited American tour guides — a requirement that China imposed on other countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
Without such a rule, China opened the door to Chinese tour leaders who appear to be a bargain for Chinese tourists because they request no upfront fee. Instead, the Chinese tour leaders profit by charging tourists for unplanned side trips in the U.S. to places like Disneyland and the Grand Canyon.
Depending on the size of the group, a Chinese tour leader can make $3,000 to $4,000 a trip, Lin and others said.
Southern California guides typically charge groups of 20 to 30 people a flat rate of about $180 a day to take them to attractions such as Universal Studios Hollywood and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Guides from Southern California contend that they have several advantages over the Chinese tour leaders besides lower costs. They claim they are more knowledgeable about the culture and history of the U.S. and have attended voluntary training sessions offered by the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We feel a responsibility to show the Chinese tourists the laws, history and culture of this country,” said tour guide Scott Wu, 47, of Rowland Heights.
What’s more, Wu and others also allege that by collecting a salary in the U.S., the Chinese tour leaders are violating American labor laws. Federal officials dispute that claim.
“Generally speaking, the use of overseas-based tour guides does not violate U.S. employment laws, provided the guides enter the United States on valid visas and their salaries and contracts originate abroad,” U.S. immigration spokeswoman Virginia Kice said.
Confrontations between American and Chinese tour leaders appear to be unique to Southern California, said Lisa Simon, president of the National Tour Assn., a trade group. But American tour guides across the country have been complaining about losing work to visiting Chinese tour leaders, she said.
“It’s not a problem that is isolated to L.A.,” she said.
Wu, the tour guide from Rowland Heights, said he heard that fights had broken out between Southland-based tour guides and those coming from China at Universal Studios Hollywood and at Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, but he was not there at the time and declined to judge who was at fault.
“It happened,” he said. “We cannot say which one is right and which is wrong.”
Wu and other Southern California tour guides have documented the loss of business by keeping track of the Chinese tour groups that have hired them, only to cancel the contracts at the last minute.
Fed up with losing business, Wang and others began to stake out LAX and hotels where the Chinese tourists were scheduled to arrive. Using cellphones and two-way radios, they have launched six or seven such intercept operations since September 2009.
During the recent confrontation at LAX, Wang questioned whether Colvin had the right to work in the U.S. — prompting Colvin to flash her U.S. passport.
Colvin said she works as a tour guide in the U.S. on a part-time basis. “I’m professional,” she said. “I pay my taxes.”
But Wang wasn’t buying it. He handed out his rate sheet and phone number to the Chinese tourists, saying he didn’t want them to be overcharged to see local attractions.
Colvin, angry at the suggestions she was cheating her clients, first threatened to call the police on Wang. But instead she directed the tourists to the outside curb to wait for a bus to their hotel.
By then, Wang was barking into his walkie-talkie to two other guides waiting in separate vehicles nearby, ready to follow the tourists to their hotel, the Crystal Casino & Hotel in Compton.
“Pick me up, they’re leaving,” Wang said into his handset.
After the tourists left the airport, Wang said he got a call from one of the Chinese visitors, asking to meet later at the hotel.
When Wang and five other local guides arrived at the hotel, several of the Chinese tourists they had met earlier at the baggage carrousel said they wanted to see the Grand Canyon but they feared being overcharged.
Wang and his colleagues don’t work in Arizona but said they did the next best thing.
“We gave them the name of a local company who will give them a good local price,” he said.