Pinellas officials once thought it would take a decade or more to start bringing busloads of Chinese tourists to the beaches.
Now it might happen this year.
Officials here are working with a veteran Chinese tourism operator in South Florida to start selling vacation packages in China that will showcase the beaches, museums and golf resorts of Pinellas County.
"It's beginning to happen," said D.T. Minich, the CEO of the Pinellas tourism agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.
Minich made his first trip to China last year to start marketing Pinellas. That nation's booming middle class is reshaping international tourism. Minich made his second trip to China last month.
Aside from Orlando and Miami, he said Pinellas was the only other local Florida tourism agency to pitch tour operators in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai.
"We're the only other destination over there right now," Minich said.
Minich believes that Pinellas County could position itself as a quieter, more relaxed, more family-friendly Florida destination sandwiched between Miami's crowded beaches and Orlando's overflowing theme parks.
It was on his most recent China trip that he met Lili Zheng of Sunny International Travel, a Miami agency that says it's been booking Florida trips for Chinese tourists since 1998.
Zheng said she brought 11,000 Chinese tourists through Florida in 2011 and 13,600 in 2013. They visited Key West, Miami and Orlando.
She believes she'll bring 20,000 tourists through Florida this year, and she wants to add Clearwater and St. Petersburg to her Florida packages.
"If they're Chinese customers, they like the beach," Zheng said, "and the Florida beaches are more beautiful than China's beaches."
Said Minich: "We're making some big inroads, and Lili is really, really well-respected. We were in four different cities, and everyone knew her.
"When I made my first presentation, she went back to the hotel that night and changed her presentation and said she can sell St. Pete-Clearwater."
There are more Chinese tourists to sell to than ever before. In 2013, according to China's government, 97 million of its citizens traveled overseas. That number is expected to climb to 200 million by 2020.
More and more of them are visiting the United States and Florida. The United States saw 1.8 million Chinese visitors in 2013, an increase of 23 percent from the year before. Also in 2013, Florida was visited by 266,000 Chinese tourists. That was an increase of 32 percent from the year before — the biggest increase by any nation visiting the Sunshine State.
Zheng visited Pinellas County for the first time last week, checking out hotels like the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort in St. Pete Beach, touring Clearwater Beach and visiting cultural attractions such as the Chihuly Collection and the Salvador Dalí Museum.
"Miami has a lot of art places, but I think the Chihuly is kind of unique," Zheng said. "The beach, the sand is very fine and white, that is a little bit different from Miami. And it's kind of quiet. There's not as many people compared to South Beach."
She hopes to start signing contracts with local hotels. In July she'll return with her tour guides to study Pinellas County more closely, so they'll be able to add the area to her agency's vacation packages. She said her agency employs 30 tour guides and nine bus drivers in Florida.
Zheng, who is from Shanghai, was a tour guide herself before deciding to move to Miami and open her own agency in 1998. She said it should take just a few months to market Pinellas beaches to China's tour operators, and then its tourists. She said that's how Miami attracted its first Chinese tourists.
"Miami was kind of new, but we promoted it well," she said. "But for Clearwater and St. Petersburg, it will take time for us to promote it to bring more customers here."
Florida is already becoming a popular destination for large groups of Chinese families and friends taking a tour together, Zheng said. They come to Florida to escape China's winters and to visit children attending U.S. colleges. Those tourists often visit during spring and winter break, or during graduation.
Chinese tourists also have a growing appetite for golf, both for instruction and the chance to play on Florida's courses.
That's why Pinellas officials reached out to Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club to design some custom packages for vacationing Chinese golfers. The Palm Harbor resort typically caters to groups of about a dozen people or fewer who stay for a few days. But Chinese tourists may travel in groups of more than 20 and stay longer.
"We've reached out quite extensively to the international markets in recent years to grow that market segment," said Patrick Farrell, Innisbrook's golf leisure and wholesale manager. "We have recognized that this is a growth opportunity for us."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter @jthalji.