Sand like sugar. Skies as blue as cornflowers. Waves of gentle turquoise.
That idyllic portrait of the Pinellas beaches is one that D.T. Minich has painted all over Europe and South America. Last week the Pinellas County tourism chief introduced the beaches of Clearwater Beach, Fort De Soto, Caladesi and Honeymoon Islands to a brand-new market:
"When they saw the blue skies and pure water and white sandy beaches, they were just like 'Wow,' " Minich said. "They were blown away. A couple of people asked me if this was real."
The photos were real — just as real as the potential for Chinese visitors to bolster Pinellas tourism.
Minich, executive director of the Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, made his first trip to China last week for Pinellas County's tourism agency. He joined a Florida tourism mission to the world's most populous nation: 1.4 billion people.
Tourism destinations around the world are lining up to grab a share of what is projected to become the world's biggest travel market in 2013. It's also the world's fastest growing market. This year 90 million Chinese are projected to travel overseas, according to Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency. That's expected to surpass 200 million by 2025.
"The growth rate has been phenomenal and exponential," said Liping Cai, director of the Purdue University Tourism and Hospitality Research Center.
Right now the U.S. share of that market is meager, and Florida's is even tinier. Last year an estimated 1.2 million Chinese tourists visited the United States, and 231,000 made their way to Florida. But that's double the number who visited Florida in 2011. Those numbers could grow even faster thanks to proposed changes to make it easier to get U.S. tourism visas in China.
Florida tourism officials have been preparing for the growth of Chinese tourism for years. They made their first visit in 2006 and hired representation there in 2008.
"We literally had to show them on the map where Florida was," said Tracy Vaughan, international marketing and events director for Visit Florida. Orlando's theme parks and South Florida's shops quickly caught the attention of Chinese tour operators and travel agencies.
Now it's time to add Pinellas County to the equation.
"We're positioning ourselves as a two-center holiday," Minich said. "They would go to Orlando first for the amusement parks, and then come over here for some R&R on our beaches."
He said it's the same formula that has helped drive an increase in European tourism to Pinellas County. Once visitors have toured Orlando's theme parks, they need a reason to come back. Europeans found that reason along Pinellas' beaches.
Florida's famous sunshine, Minich said, also held a special appeal to the Chinese.
"The smog is such an issue there," he said. "I never saw the sunshine, like ever, when I was there."
Even more impressive than the growth rate of Chinese travelers is how much they spend. The 231,000 Chinese who visited Florida last year spent an estimated $177.2 million, ranking 14th among the state's overseas visitors. China's upper and middle classes spend 19 percent of their annual income on travel, far more than their counterparts from other nations.
"I've been told they'll go into a designer store and they don't buy just one Gucci purse," said Vaughan. "They buy three, one for themselves and the others for their family."
When Minich realized the importance of consumerism during his trip, he had Tampa's International Plaza send him PowerPoint slides highlighting the mall's top shopping brands. He also brushed up on his Chinese business manners and had Chinese business cards printed.
The Florida mission visited Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu (Minich was on the 27th floor of a hotel in Chengdu when a powerful earthquake hit the nearby Sichuan province.) They made presentations and attended dinners, building a network of tourism contacts there.
Pinellas doesn't plan on launching a marketing campaign there anytime soon, but will instead concentrate on travel agencies and tour operators. Most Chinese travel in groups, though that could change as they become more familiar with the bay area.
There don't seem to be many barriers keeping Chinese tourists from the bay area. It's a 15-hour flight with just one U.S. connection from Beijing, but Chinese travelers don't seem to mind long flights. The younger visitors speak English and many are Western-educated. Eventually, Vaughan said, Florida will learn to cater to Chinese tastes and customs. Menus will have to be translated. Hoteliers will need to stock up on bedroom slippers and hot tea.
Cai, the Purdue professor, thinks a more natural destination like the Pinellas beaches has a shot at competing with bigger, more famous urban and entertainment destinations in the U.S.
"You want to give them a taste of what the organic American experience is like," Cai said, "not just the man-made experience."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.