In 2017, 3.46 million Chinese visitors arrived in the United States, and about 40 percent of them visited a park or national monument. These nature-loving tourists are also ready to open their wallets. In 2016, Chinese visitors spent more than visitors from any other country: $33.2 billion USD. South America, Antarctica, and Europe are also beginning to boom with Chinese travelers who are awakening to the joys of adventure travel.
As the tourism industry strives to meet the needs of Chinese visitors, some communities are looking to meet this opportunity head-on. In February, Yellowstone National Park and the University of Montana teamed up to host a West Yellowstone, Montana, workshop for Yellowstone-area businesses focused on travel trends, cultural values, communication tips, and marketing strategies applicable to Chinese visitors. These are a few tips offered by experts on how to prepare an adventure business to meet the needs and expectations of this growing group of visitors.
Don’t Get Lost in Translation
When adventure tour operators and their clients don’t speak the same language, a variety of problems can arise, from minor communication issues to huge safety concerns. Even if visitors can communicate in English well enough to coordinate a pick-up time, that doesn’t mean they have a sufficient understanding of the language to comprehend complex safety instructions.
“You’ll get nods, smiles, agreement, and the waiver signed, but you won’t really have communicated with guests,” said Jake Finifrock, ATTA’s regional director for Asia, a travel consultant, and owner of Midnight Son Tours. “There has to be a language element in there.”
There are a number of ways to overcome these barriers:
- Hire Mandarin-speaking seasonal staff: Hiring workers who can communicate with Chinese visitors in their native language is a huge benefit. When people understand each other’s language and culture, it paves the way for more in-depth communication and understanding.
- Provide written information in Mandarin: Finifrock, who is fluent in Mandarin, encourages companies to use Chinese signage, with waiver forms and instructions in Chinese. He uses a single-page, laminated sheet in Chinese outlining the elements of each activity in Chinese.
- Provide maps and visual materials: All guests appreciate an understanding of where they will be going and what they will be doing. When you don’t share a common language, visuals can help promote understanding. “I like to provide maps for my guests of where we’re going and what we’re going to do,” Finifrock said. He provides pictures and handouts of anything technical, often presenting the material on the bus ride so people have time to prepare.
- Avoid humor: Humor often doesn’t translate across languages and cultures. A joke may confuse guests who do not share a common language and culture. “That doesn’t mean don’t smile and don’t laugh. Those things are fine,” Finifrock said. “But a lot of times, we might use word puns, jokes, or worst-case scenario humor to put our guests at ease. That doesn’t always translate very well with Chinese guests.”
- Translate it right: Finifrock cautioned against simply using Google Translate or other free or low-cost translation services. Getting quality translations is expensive, but he believes it is a worthwhile investment. “If they are going to be materials you might use for 10 years, it’s an investment you’ll want to make,” he said.
He uses a translator who is a native Chinese citizen with a doctorate degree in education from an English university. After the translator translates the materials to Chinese, Finifrock has another translator translate them back to English to ensure no information was lost.
Any type of adventure travel can include an element of risk. Finifrock was once on a kayaking trip in Alaska with a Chinese group that planned to kayak to a glacier for a trek. However, the katabatic winds were strong and guides turned the group around due to safety concerns before reaching the glacier. Some group members were upset with this decision, and Finifrock ended up refunding some money and taking them to hike a different glacier. He said in China, travel companies are required to deliver what they advertise, and many guests are unfamiliar with the idea that a guide may turn them around for their own safety.
“They were really taken aback a guide could make a decision that completely altered their experience,” Finifrock said. “They have a different cultural approach to things. The guests themselves didn’t realize how dangerous it was.”
Tour operators can mitigate this potential element of surprise by employing a variety of strategies:
- Communicate clearly: Finifrock pointed out that U.S. guides may communicate with guests differently than Chinese guides. While a U.S. guide may say “it’s probably not a good idea” to do something, Chinese guests may be more used to a guide who firmly says “do not under any circumstances do that” in order to communicate a danger. “It’s not that they disrespect the authority of the guide, but they don’t understand the actual dangers there,” Finifrock said.
In addition to communicating dangers, it’s also important to be clear about logistics, including meeting points and times. Be sure everyone knows to come prepared with the right clothing and anything else they will need for the day.
- Use visual demonstrations: Providing visual demonstrations of key topics and safety concepts can help people who aren’t fluent in English as well as people with varying styles of learning. Physically demonstrating concepts such as “high side” on a raft can help people understand what to do.
Cultural Communication and Understanding
Communication goes beyond language translation. People who live within different cultures may have different ideas and expectations about everything from personal space to group dynamics.
Prepare for success prior to receiving Chinese travelers by considering a number of logistical and cultural factors:
- Provide staff with cultural training: Jenn Thomsen, assistant professor in the Department of Society and Conservation at the University of Montana, was one of the key organizers of the February workshop in West Yellowstone. She encouraged companies to provide their staff members with cultural training.
“It’s really important to recognize some cultures have very distinct cultural norm differences, so making sure your staff is aware of those differences, expectations, and how people communicate is really important because it reduces the frustration on either side,” Thomsen says. “Someone may be misinterpreting something or may not understand why someone is acting a certain way.”
- Use the right measurements: If guests are from a country that uses kilometers and meters, be sure to provide measurements in the appropriate format. This is especially important when providing safety information, such as how far to stay away from dangers like wildlife.
- Understand expectations of personal space: In the United States and other countries, people may wait in single-file lines, which isn’t the norm in China, and while the idea of personal space exists in China, it takes a different approach. Tour operators should feel comfortable with telling their Chinese guests that, because they are mixing with guests from other cultures, they should adopt the local expectations regarding queueing and personal space. There is a Chinese saying that roughly translates to “when in Rome, do as the Romans,” and they are very respectful of such things if they are pointed out, Finifrock said.
- Identify the leader: In Chinese culture, group dynamics are very different than in Western culture. Groups will typically defer to a leader. Identifying the group’s leader and communicating with that person can increase the effectiveness of communication.
“Generally, the leader is a more mature person,” Finifrock said. “The oldest man tends to be the person with the authority, but if he’s too old he starts to lose that authority and his adult child might assume that role, for example. It’s clearly defined to them and not always clearly visible on the outside.” To identify the leader, Finifrock suggested asking who to give instructions to or just watching to see how people act. The leader will typically be the person to whom the group shows deference. For example, they might give the leader the best bicycle or make sure the leader gets the first serving at lunch.
Provide What Chinese Visitors Want and Expect
Chinese visitors often have certain expectations on their adventure trips abroad. By meeting these expectations, tour operators can help ensure their guests will be happy. Some things Chinese guests typically want and expect on a trip include:
- Three hot meals a day: Chinese visitors generally expect three hot meals a day, and they may be disappointed when presented with a sandwich and soft drink for lunch. “Chinese tourists really expect three hot meals a day, having hot water available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Thomsen said. “Having a hot meal at lunch instead of just a packed sandwich is very much a norm of what they expect.”
- Ample opportunities for photography: Photo stops are important, so provide plenty of opportunities for photography. “Photos are a huge part of their experience,” Thomsen said. “They want to be in the photos. It’s not just taking a picture of a mountain, it’s taking pictures of themselves in front of the mountain, taking a selfie, group pictures.”
Preparing for the Long Haul
Preparing for Chinese visitors isn’t something companies can do overnight. It requires long-term preparation and a determination to learn.
“If a company really wants to engage, they’re going to have to have a learner’s mindset,” Finifrock said. He encouraged tourism professionals to spend time learning, engaging, and approaching the issue with a culturally sensitive point of view in order to prepare for the surge in Chinese visitation.