For the first time ever, Pinellas County's tourism agency will launch a marketing campaign in China, hoping to lure Asian travelers to the beaches of St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Visit St. Pete-Clearwater's advertising campaign, which includes print, digital and television ads and launches this spring, is through a partnership with Brand USA, which is responsible for promoting tourism in the United States.
In addition, Visit St. Pete-Clearwater executive director David Downing will join tourism officials from other Florida destinations on a 10-day trip to China in May.
"Projections show that China will become the top overseas market for America in the next three to five years, and we've been slowly getting our feet wet to prepare for that," Downing said. "With more than 1.3 billion people in China, that's a massive market with huge potential for us."
Visit St. Pete-Clearwater is the only Florida Gulf Coast destination taking part in the trip to meet Chinese tour operators, government officials and travel agents. The Sunshine State group is part of a coalition headed by Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency. Other Florida cities represented on the trip include Orlando, Kissimmee, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
Hillsborough's travel agency, Visit Tampa Bay, is not taking part in the China trip in May. But the agency will provide Visit Florida with data about Chinese travelers in Tampa, said spokesman Kevin Wiatrowski.
Visit St. Pete-Clearwater paid $20,000 for their portion of the Brand USA promotion. In addition, the agency has paid $10,000 a year to work with a public relations firm in China for the last three years, Downing said.
Brand USA projections show that China will be the largest new market of in-bound tourists for the United States in the next three to five years. More than 2.2 million Chinese travelers visited the United States in 2014, which is a 21.1 percent increase from 2013, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Compare that to 2009, when just 500,000 Chinese travelers visited the country.
The number of Chinese visitors to the United States is expected to be 2.6 million for 2015. And by 2020, the United States expects to see 5 million Chinese travelers, which would make it the largest overseas market.
The country is currently the fourth-largest market for overseas arrivals in the United States, which is up from the 22nd largest in 2003. In Florida, China is the 11th largest international market, said Susannah Costello with Visit Florida.
In 2014, the United States and China started a new 10-year visa program between the two countries. Prior to that, only one-year visas were available. Tourism boosters say that's what really opened the doors to grow a new tourism market.
"China visitation is on steroids. We're seeing it spike exponentially," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. "In 2009, Chinese travelers were coming to the big cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Vegas and San Francisco, but that's changing."
And Florida wants to be a part of that "second wave," Costello said.
"We're seeing more adventurous travelers coming from China now who want to venture out beyond what they've already seen," she said. "But China is new territory. The people there don't necessarily know about Florida in the way the United Kingdom or Latin America does. So while we don't expect to see big growth this year or the next, we think China will be a near-term or longer term market for us."
It doesn't help that there's no direct way to get to Tampa Bay right now. Flights from Tampa to Beijing on Wednesday cost an average of about $1,000 round trip, with layovers in major hubs like Washington, D.C., San Francisco and New York City.
"Chinese travelers stay longer and spend more than other international travelers," Dow said. "So if a family is coming on a 16-day trip, St. Pete isn't going to get all 16 days. But they could get a few nights."
Downing admits that a lot that needs to happen in the Tampa Bay area before a lot of Chinese travelers come here. Local hotels need to offer more food seen in Asian countries to their menus, for starters, he said.
"Thirty years ago we started marketing to Germany before anyone else, and now Germany is our No. 2 market," Downing said. Not to mention Lufthansa just last year started direct air service to and from Tampa and Frankfurt. "Right now we're just exposing our brand to a new area of the world that doesn't know who we are."
Contact Justine Griffin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.