In 2015, China ranked 11th in international visitation to Florida, with 270,000 people coming to the Sunshine State. However, state tourism officials are betting that China won’t languish outside the top 10 for long.
“I think in the next five years it will be in our top five or six,” Visit Florida chief marketing officer Paul Phipps said.
Indeed, wooing Chinese tourists, and along with them direct air service between China and Florida, has become a major strategic goal for Visit Florida. And it’s easy to understand why. The country of 1.4 billion has experienced an economic downturn of late, but in general it has a growing wealthy class as well as the world’s second-largest economy.
Last month Visit Florida led a delegation of 13 companies and organizations to China for an eight-day, four-city tour to engage the Chinese travel industry in the Florida product. Among the entities that made up the delegation were Visit Tampa Bay, the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, Visit Orlando and Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. Universal Orlando and SeaWorld also participated.
The whirlwind of meetings the delegation engaged in included one with the state-owned China Eastern Airlines, which is second-largest in China by passengers flown and the seventh-largest in the world; and one with Hainan Airlines, China’s largest privately owned carrier.
Shari Bailey, Visit Florida’s director of international sales and market development, led the delegation. She reported that the news from the two meetings with airlines was encouraging. Florida, she said, is in the top five for both airlines as far as new potential international destinations. Either Orlando or Miami would be the first destination for both carriers, she said. Hainan in particular, she said, is interested in the opportunity that a Florida locale would offer to connect with Latin American getaways, which suggests that Miami could be its first choice.
Both carriers told the Florida delegation that they want to test new long-haul routes they are planning to operate with fuel-efficient Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners ahead of a decision about potential Florida routes in late 2017 or early 2018.
Bailey said the effect new routes have on a community is substantial. Citing a hypothetical situation of a daily flight with 250 seats, 75% of which are filled, the route would generate $56.3 million in revenue for the destination as well as $21.6 million in salaries.
Now appears to be an excellent time to court Chinese airlines. According to a May 23 Airline Weekly story, Chinese carriers increased overseas capacity by 30% in 2015, and the airlines have submitted applications for yet-to-be-launched routes into Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles.
Still, Airlines Weekly’s Seth Kaplan remains skeptical that Miami or Orlando will offer a direct China flight in the near future. Traditionally, he said, U.S. destinations get direct service to the business hub of Tokyo before they offer flights to the China market. But Florida doesn’t have Tokyo routes yet.
“Of course, it could be that China airlines are expanding so quickly that they come to Florida sooner because there is no place left [for growth],” Kaplan said.
Bailey said she just hopes it happens.
“It’s a game-changer, direct flights,” she said.