CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — As it is the world over, Yellowstone National Park could be a powerful magnet for attracting tourists from the People's Republic of China.
Xiang (Robert) Li, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, said the Chinese are most aware of urban destinations in the U.S. like New York and Los Angeles. But in the West, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon also are on their radar.
Li said people were asked to rate the importance of 15 activities when planning trips outside Asia. Visiting national parks ranked first, even though Chinese visitors usually don't see national parks on tours of the U.S.
Li said travel between China and the U.S. has become easier since a memorandum of understanding was signed between the two governments in 2007. American travel businesses now are able to promote their services inside China, and Chinese can travel to the U.S. in groups for leisure purposes.
In the past, Chinese visitors often came as members of business or government delegations and frequently would include a leisure component in their trips, he said. Many such visitors were senior in social status and rank; but in recent years, affluent younger people and student groups have been visiting the U.S. Chinese visitors often come to the U.S. to visit friends and relatives.
"This is a very dynamic and ever-changing market," Li said.
While travel from China is nascent, travel from Japan is well-established. It ranks fourth among countries of origin for visitors to the U.S.
This year, 3.4 million Japanese travelers are expected to visit the U.S., according to the federal Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.
By contrast, 911,000 visitors are expected from China, although the rate of growth is much faster than from Japan.
James Scoon, travel trade manager for the Wyoming Office of Travel and Tourism, said Japanese tourists are drawn to the West by the same cowboy and American Indian images that attract other visitors.
When they see state maps, for example, Japanese visitors often are familiar with "Laramie" because of a 1960s TV series of the same name.
While Japanese tourists once traveled mostly in motorcoach groups, Scoon said families and individuals are now striking out on their own.
While icons like Yellowstone beckon, Japanese tourist also enjoy at least one activity that sets them apart.
"One thing they have a huge interest in is the fossil digging," Scoon said, which is completely different from other markets in his experience.
Since tourists can fly directly from Japan to Salt Lake City, he added, they are able to stop at private fossil diggings in western Wyoming before heading toward Yellowstone.
Scoon said Japanese visitors also enjoy the wide-open spaces, so travel representatives are promoting stargazing: "This has been a very successful campaign."
What impact the devastating earthquake and tsunami will have on tourism traffic this summer from Japan remains to be seen.