‘China-welcome has to become a mindset’ to win nonstop flights to China

Nearly 75,400 passengers from China’s eight largest metropolitan areas flew to the Triangle last year, despite having to change planes.
Nearly 75,400 passengers from China’s eight largest metropolitan areas flew to the Triangle last year, despite having to change planes.

The Triangle will need to better accommodate Chinese visitors and work to build its brand in China if it hopes to win a nonstop flight between the country and Raleigh-Durham International Airport, regional leaders were told Tuesday.

RDU officials hope to persuade an airline to begin nonstop service to China in the coming years. Airport officials believe there will be sufficient demand for the flight but say that businesses, universities and government officials in the region need to show support and help attract both Chinese businesses and tourists that would help fill the planes.

“Communities with equal potential across the U.S. want exactly the same thing we do,” Michael Landguth, the president and CEO of RDU, said Tuesday at a symposium to kick off a regional campaign to win a China flight. “Other, more ambitious communities will seize the opportunity if we don’t.”

Landguth says RDU thinks it can support three flights a week to China, each carrying more than 300 passengers. He noted that it took six years to lay the groundwork for the nonstop flights from RDU to London and Paris, and said the China campaign will take anywhere from three to seven years.

Economic trends favor greater air travel between China and the United States, as the world’s two largest economies become closer and China’s growing middle class seeks to travel, said Mike Boyd, a partner in the consulting firm China Ni Hao. Boyd was one of four members of the firm who spoke at Tuesday’s symposium organized by RDU, Duke University and the state Department of Commerce.

He estimates that nearly 75,400 passengers from China’s eight largest metropolitan areas flew to the Triangle last year, despite having to change planes. That’s more than flew to U.S. cities such as Philadelphia, St. Louis and Orlando, he said.

Boyd said the Triangle has an advantage over those other cities because of universities such as Duke, which has a campus outside Shanghai, and businesses such as Lenovo, which has dual headquarters in Morrisville and Beijing, and Smithfield Foods, now a subsidiary of WH Group of China. Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland noted that the Chinese company Triangle Tyre has committed to build plants in Edgecombe County capable of making 6 million tires a year, even though it takes 24 hours or more to fly from the Triangle to the company’s home in the seaport city of Weihai.

“Time is money to a company,” said Copeland, emphasizing the potential benefits of a nonstop flight.

The consultants from China Ni Hao made several suggestions for winning a China flight. They include:

▪ Establish a more robust digital presence in China. Hire Chinese firms to create business and tourism websites geared to Chinese audiences, and establish a presence on online platforms, such as WeChat, used by the Chinese.

▪ Create Chinese language materials at tourist sites and hotels in North Carolina. It’s not only a sign of welcome and respect, but English is still a barrier for many Chinese citizens, who are more likely to order room service or eat in a restaurant if there is a menu written in their language.

▪ Accept forms of payment that Chinese tourists and business people are likely to use, such as the UnionPay credit card or the online payment platforms Alipay or WeChat Pay.

“China-welcome has to become a mindset,” said Chris Spring, a partner in China Ni Hao who specializes in Chinese tourism. “But you don’t have to do that much for them to appreciate it.”

By 2020, the U.S. will be the largest overseas market for Chinese tourists, Spring said, with an estimated 23 million expected to visit in the next five years. While shopping is still important, there’s growing interest among Chinese visitors in restaurants and food, national parks and natural areas and experiences they can’t get at home, such as hunting or shooting ranges, said Jack Lok, a China Ni Hao consultant whose companies bring Chinese tourists to the United States.

“The U.S. is definitely on the bucket list of most Chinese citizens,” Lok said.

Landguth said the Research Triangle Regional Partnership will lead the effort to develop a strategy for better selling the Triangle in China. Meanwhile, he said, RDU officials will reach out to business leaders to determine the level of demand for China flights to help eventually make the case to airlines.

“It’s 7,100 miles. That is a long distance,” Landguth said. “And that is a lot of one airplane that’s got to be tied up to go from Point A to Point B. We need to make sure we can actually fill it going both ways.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer