'The door is open': Seattle sees huge Chinese tourism boom

SEATTLE - Have you noticed an increase in visitors from Asia to the Seattle area lately?

It turns out local travel experts have been tracking a huge explosion of tourism and business travel from China over the last two years.

"The door is open," says May Zhang, owner of Seattle May Travel. "The city is beautiful and the city is happy."

Zhang's travel business specializes in tours of our region for Chinese visitors. She says Seattle has become the first stop for many Asian visitors.

"This year outbound tours from China have increased 32 percent in the same period from last year," says Zhang.

"Visit Seattle" says the number of travelers from China visiting Seattle is up 90 percent in just two years in part because of streamlined U.S. travel visa rules and China's recent economic growth.

"Seattle is a very warm and welcome destination for Chinese visitors, we hear that all the time," says Janet Christopher, vice president of tourism at Visit Seattle. "But it's also that they have more expendable income and travel is at the top of their list on how to spend it."

The thirst for travel has the number of Asian visitors soaring at popular Seattle attractions like the Space Needle, Pike Place Market and the Museum of Flight.

"I'm thrilled. We get a lot of tourists from around the world, but to hear the Chinese visitors are especially fans of the museum delights us all," says Mike Bush, vice president of marketing at the museum.

The other big reason allowing the new influx of Chinese visitors is that a number of airlines now offer direct flights to Seattle from Beijing, Shanghai and soon Hong Kong.

Business is so good the Crowne Plaza Hotel downtown has hired a number of Chinese-speaking staffers to make guests feel right at home.

"The city is very beautiful, it's very clear here and the clothes are cheap," said one unnamed Chinese visitor on a recent tour of Seattle.

Tourism is the fourth-largest industry now in Washington state. Visit Seattle sees nothing but significant growth ahead from China and says the average Chinese visitor spends $7,000 on a U.S. vacation.