Adam Burke of Los Angeles' tourism board on the return of Chinese travelers

Adam Burke, CEO of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, was recently appointed to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board (TTAB), a group of 32 tourism leaders who advise the Commerce Department on the travel industry. News editor Johanna Jainchill spoke to Burke about China’s reopening, long visa wait times and ending vaccination requirements.

Adam Burke

Q: China opened its borders to outbound travelers in January. How important is this market to L.A.?

A: Massively important. China, prior to the pandemic, had grown to become L.A.’s No. 1 market. So in terms of recovery in L.A., I think it’s accurate to say that we won’t see full recovery until we see full recovery of Chinese visitation. There are only three entities in the U.S. who have a license to market directly in China for tourism. One is the state of Hawaii, one is the state of Nevada and one is the city of Los Angeles. We opened our first office in Beijing 16 years ago and now have four offices in China. It’s been a major focus area. And sure enough, in 2016 L.A. became the first U.S. city to welcome more than 1 million Chinese visitors in a single year. In 2019, China was our top overseas markets with nearly 1.2 million Chinese. L.A. is the most popular destination in the country for Chinese visitors.

Q: Staff shortages in hospitality seem to be improving. Does L.A. have the staff to accommodate a potential influx of Chinese travelers?

A: We’re all still concerned about workforce shortages. I think that’s going to be a long-term effort. The good news is that prior to the pandemic, we had about 550,000 Angelenos working in tourism-related careers, and as of two months ago we have about 503,000. What helps us as it relates to the China market is we’re taking a two-pronged approach: managing expectations in China and working with our receptive tour operators here. This goes back six or seven years, when China was becoming one of our top overseas markets. The program educated our member businesses on how to prepare for a bigger increase in Chinese visitation.

Q: The U.S. Travel Association is advocating to repeal the vaccination requirement for international travelers. Is that something holding back tourism to L.A.?

A: Vaccination rates are very high among travelers. If you just look at the science, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to keep that requirement in place anymore, right? I mean, we as Americans can travel all over the world without a vaccine requirement for the most part. So it’s really about having bilateral and reciprocal agreements that make it as easy to come to us as it is to travel from the U.S. I do think it’s an inhibitor for those people who maybe haven’t had the opportunity or for health reasons may not be able to be vaccinated. We want to make sure that people can come to us as easily as we can travel outside of the country.

Q: Wearing your TTAB and L.A. hats, how big a deal are visa wait times, especially with China reopening?

A: The good news is that right now the consulate in Beijing is processing about 600 visa applications daily. We’re concerned that, as they begin to see a massive increase in applications, will they be able to maintain that quick turnaround? The larger concern when you look at countries like India, Brazil, Mexico, where average wait times are still over 400 days, that’s de facto putting up a “we’re closed” sign, because people can’t wait that long. The other issue is the halo effect: You have so many markets where the visa wait times are so substantially long. What’s going to happen if they start redeploying those resources to exclusively focus on China? That has a consequence of delaying or increasing wait times in other markets. For the U.S. to be competitive, there is probably no issue more important than reducing visa wait times. 

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