Beijing or bust

Mention the number 1.4 billion in Nevada, and it usually represents a decent month in gambling revenues. When 1.4 billion denotes a number of people (and potential customers), however, it can only mean China—and that is the obvious reason that the Nevada Commission of Tourism is opening a state tourism office there this month.

NCOT Chairwoman Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt will lead a state delegation to Beijing on June 11 to cut the ribbon on the state’s latest tourism office. The mission is simple: to convince and then assist citizens of the world’s fastest-growing economy to make Nevada their destination.

Although the Beijing office will cost the state about $100,000 annually to operate, the statistics reveal the move to be more of an investment than a gamble. Although only 7.1 percent of the population of China can afford to travel internationally, that’s potentially 100 million high-rollers—almost triple the total number of visitors to Las Vegas last year. And that number is considered conservative, with some estimates placing the number of prospective travelers from China at 300 million people, or 21.4 percent of the population.

The assignment should prove easy. The Chinese already love to gamble in Nevada. Chinese tourism officials estimate that more than 90 percent of the 250,000 Chinese who visited the United States last year made the trek to Nevada.

While that is probably also true of, say, Serbs, the reason NCOT is opening an office in Beijing and not Belgrade is that the Chinese market is more lucrative. With a penchant for gambling and shopping, the typical Chinese traveler spends about $5,200 per trip—excluding the cost of airfare.

“We can’t afford not to be there,” says Bruce Bommarito, NCOT’s executive director. “The potential is great, but you have to be there.”

But if affluent Chinese are already itching to play the tables here, what will the NCOT office be doing? Mainly helping Nevada-bound Chinese overcome the two major obstacles preventing them from visiting en masse: direct flights and tourist visas.

The Nevada delegation is scheduled to meet with the president of Air China, the country’s largest carrier, during the visit to talk about opening a direct route from China to McCarran International Airport. NCOT has already had discussions with the Civil Aviation Administration about the requirements.

But hourly flights from China won’t matter much if the Chinese can’t get tourist visas. Few countries grant visa waivers—and security in post-9/11 America has made the process even more stringent.

According to Bommarito, in China it takes about 30 days to get an interview with an American official for a visa.

“It’s not exclusive to China, but all non-waiver countries have to have interviews,” he says. “China has been a good partner. Once it becomes easier, the China market will be huge for us.”

Despite the challenges, the NCOT office in China seems a shrewd move. And Nevada will be the only U.S. state with a tourism office there.

Utah’s tourism office is already trying to make arrangements to have some materials in the Nevada office.