Tourism and hospitality staff are interacting with people from other countries and cultures with greater frequency every year. The number of international tourists worldwide topped one billion in 2012, and grew by 13% by the end of 2014. The nationalities of tourists are changing as well. Some of the biggest increases in tourism spending have come from the BRIC countries— Brazil, Russia, India, and China. China is now the world’s top tourism source market, with spending by Chinese tourists increasing by over 20 percent each year since 2007 and currently generating 13% of global tourism receipts worldwide.
The United States has become a more popular destination as well; the number of Chinese visitors to the U.S. grew by 21% during 2014. In fact, for Chinese, Indians, and Brazilians, the U.S. is either the first or second destination of choice. The U.S. has its own initiative to actively promote inbound international tourism, and it seems to be working. The Corporation for Travel Promotion USA is a public/private partnership created by the Travel Promotion Act in 2010. It began doing business in 2011 under the name Brand USA, helping “welcome more than 3 million incremental international visitors to the USA, benefiting the U.S. economy with more than $21 billion in business sales, and supporting, on average, nearly 50,000 new jobs a year.”
Translating and optimizing a website for foreign audiences is an essential means for attracting international visitors; optimizing their experience while they are here is essential as well. The China Outbound Tourism and Research Institute recently reported that many hotels in the U.S. are adding special amenities for Chinese tourists such as Chinese newspapers and TV channels, and equipping rooms with tea service and slippers. They even avoid giving Chinese customers rooms with the number “4,” as it has an ominous meaning in China (“8,” on the other hand, is very auspicious). And they add Mandarin speakers to the staff so that guests don’t have to speak fluent English to communicate their wishes.
In addition to providing material comforts, it’s important to foster cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity among staff who may be unfamiliar with other culture’s norms for social and business interactions. For example, basic ideas about how to be polite can vary widely; a Chinese person might think that to initiate a conversation with a stranger in a public place is rude, while an American might think that to NOT initiate a conversation in the same setting is rude.
What do foreign visitors consider strange about Americans, and what can we do to understand and mitigate their reactions?
- Some cultures consider it rude to leave food on one’s plate; foreign travelers are often overwhelmed by the portion sizes in the US and concerned about finishing it. Wrapping it up “to go” is not a universally chosen option.
- The Japanese culture is very concerned with concepts of “saving face,” or maintaining one’s dignity. The American habits of “teasing” or “ribbing” a friend to show familiarity can be seriously misinterpreted. Tour guides should be careful to remain friendly and helpful, but not overly familiar.
- Along these lines, there are very different customs for interacting with strangers – Americans believe smiling and making eye contact with everyone is polite, but in other cultures, eye contact may seem aggressive and smiling constantly makes a person look like a fool.
- The American custom of tipping for service is not widely shared overseas, and can cause confusion and embarrassment for foreign tourists.
The dramatic increase in international visitors to the U.S. means that businesses catering to tourists can benefit financially by training their employees in skills such as cultural awareness and cross-cultural communication. Translating welcome literature and optimizing a foreign-language digital presence are very important for bringing visitors in. Providing cross-cultural training for your staff helps ensure that your foreign guests will have the kind of positive experience they’ll appreciate and share with their communities on social media.