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Latin America lures Chinese tourists

By Brian Byrnes, CNN
updated 11:06 PM EDT, Sun October 2, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Latin America opening up to tourism from China
  • New direct flights, Mandarin menus and Chinese speakers in hotels all help make Latin America an attractive destination
  • Top draws for Chinese tourists are penguins in Patagonia, Iguazu waterfalls and Machu Picchu in Peru

Buenos Aires, Argentina (CNN) -- Maria Jose Martinez Waldner grew up speaking Spanish and English at her home in Buenos Aires. Several years ago she decided to learn Mandarin Chinese, a language that is rarely heard in Argentina.

In 2010, she won a scholarship and traveled to China to perfect her language skills. Now, her knowledge of both Chinese language and customs aids her considerably in her job at the Park Tower Hotel in Buenos Aires, where she welcomes Chinese tourists arriving in the Argentine capital.

"They act like they never thought that someone here in the hotel could speak their language. They say to me "Oh you speak Chinese? Where did you study? Did you go to China? Would you like to go back?" So it is beautiful to receive those kinds of comments from the Chinese guests," Waldner says.

Now many throughout the hospitality industry in Latin America are following Waldner's lead and getting pro-active about better receiving visitors from China.

As many as 60 million Chinese tourists are expected to travel abroad this year, according to the Xinhua news agency. Travel agency figures indicate that number could reach 100 million by 2015.

Europe and the United States continue to be among the top destinations outside Asia for first-time outbound Chinese travelers, but many are now looking to Latin America for its vibrant culture and stark beauty.

"The Chinese tourist is particularly focused on places in Latin America that are nothing like China, so they like to see glaciers, whales and penguins in Patagonia, the Iguazu waterfalls of Argentina and Brazil, and Machu Picchu in Peru," says Gustavo Coudannes, owner of Uco Travel, a travel agency in Buenos Aires that has worked with Chinese tourists since 2000.

China has spent hundreds of billions of dollars over the past decade in Latin America, including $15 billion dollars over the last three years in Argentina, according to officials at the Chinese embassy in Buenos Aires. The bulk of this investment has been in the farming, mining and energy sectors, but the hospitality sector has seen triple-digit growth recently as well.

"We saw big increases in the Chinese market in the past year. We saw an increase of 364 percent at the Sheraton Mexico City and a 260 percent increase at the Park Tower in Buenos Aires," says Osvaldo Librizzi, President of Starwood Hotels Latin America.

Starwood recently launched a program at 19 of its gateway city hotels around the globe aimed at catering to their growing number of Chinese guests.

The program includes in-room amenities like slippers and tea kettles, and access to Chinese television and newspapers.

At the hotel's restaurants, menus are printed in Mandarin and feature dishes amenable to the Chinese palate, like congee, soy milk and noodles. Hilton Hotels recently started a similar program called "Huanying" ("Welcome" in Mandarin) at more than 50 of its hotels in 13 countries.

"We are in the hospitality business, and we need to make sure that the customers that we receive feel at home. And in order to do that, and especially with different cultures, like the Chinese culture, we need to really learn about that culture," says Librizzi.

It is not just hotels that are making an effort to woo the Chinese. The public and private sectors in Latin America are getting involved too.

AeroMexico airlines began running two weekly flights between Mexico City and Shanghai last year. Brazil has been sending delegations to China to entice travelers to the 2014 football World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. In Buenos Aires, tango shows and steak houses now offer menus in Mandarin.

Travel agent Coudannes recently opened offices in Beijing and Shanghai to cope with surging demand of Chinese visiting Latin America. But he concedes that finding the right balance between Chinese customs and Latino culture is a constant challenge for his company.

"Chinese tourists are not accustomed to saying 'Thank you,' which is something very common for Latinos. And they expect everything, even a bottle of water, to be included in their tour package, so it has taken time for us to learn how to properly adapt our tours so that everybody is happy," he says.

Millions of Chinese tourists will travel to Latin America for the first time in the coming years, and millions of dollars are at stake, so it is likely that 'Thank you' and 'Please' and 'Come again,' will likely soon be said in ways just about everyone understands

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