Why you should care
Because the travel industry should bank less on tour groups for Chinese tourists.
In 2009, the manager of Beijing-based Ntours International, Lin Yang, embarked on a familiarization trip with a group of Chinese tourists. Instead of hiring a tour bus and a flag-waving guide, Yang and his travelers flew from the Chinese capital to San Francisco, where they rented recreational vehicles (RVs). Their game plan? To visit Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park in one epic road trip. With limited English and little experience driving the giant, diesel-powered vehicles, the group battled a few metaphorical potholes — like language barriers and the rules of the road — before eventually settling into their new travel style. Today, Yang estimates that there are 60,000 members of Ntours International who are interested in these “self-driving” vacations. “It breaks the cultural and language barriers between people,” he says.
The rise in the popularity of international RV vacations for seasoned Chinese travelers is due to the country’s rapidly improving standard of living, paired with fewer barriers to travel in the U.S., such as the advent in 2014 of a 10-year multiple-entry visa for Chinese tourists. According to Joe Laing, the director of marketing at El Monte RV, a popular rental dealer for Chinese visitors to Los Angeles County, “The U.S. is kind of considered the homeland for the RV industry, and where else can you rent a 45-foot diesel motorhome and drive it around like a tour bus for a rock star with your family?”
In their eagerness to see America, some Chinese RV road trippers may rush from stop to stop, soaking up the experience at breakneck speeds.
RVs first entered the hearts and minds of Chinese consumers with the 1999 film Be There or Be Square, a romantic comedy that follows a Beijing native living out of an RV in Los Angeles. But car ownership, let alone RV rental, has not always been the norm in China. In 2000 there were just four million cars distributed among a population of 1.3 billion, according to The Guardian. Now, China is the largest auto manufacturer in the world, with more than 280 million vehicles and 327 million drivers in 2015, according to its Ministry of Public Security.
In the late 2000s, RV travel began to gain popularity in China. Unlike RV travel in the U.S., many Chinese RVs are stationary — parked in campsites in what’s known as “destination camping.” Large groups of travelers, sometimes 20 strong, organize online in chatrooms for “lvyou,” or self-driving tourists. Members then gather at toll-road entrances in cars and caravan to their chosen campsites, meeting new friends and enjoying an accessible form of RVing.
The Chinese RVers who embark for America are looking for a much more adventurous experience. Middle- and upper-class groups of adults and sometimes families — often from Beijing — fly into western U.S. cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Chicago also is a popular starting point due to its access to the famed Route 66. Trips typically last 12 days, with the most popular travel times centered around the country’s National Day (Oct. 1), which is celebrated with a weeklong holiday called Golden Week. El Monte RV has streamlined the rental process for the Chinese market with an instructional video in Chinese, vehicles outfitted with rice cookers and directions to the nearest 99 Ranch Market, a popular Chinese supermarket chain.
Like Yang’s initial trip, these RV excursions can generate some inadvertent adventures. In August 2016 San Diego news stations reported that a “self-driving” Chinese tourist had unintentionally been caught up in a high-speed police chase, with the driver unaware that flashing lights and screaming sirens meant he was supposed to pull over. Luckily for all, the chase ended without injury or citation, but the incident does raise issues about the preparedness of Chinese drivers and their potential impact on the safety of unsuspecting locals tooling along highways and byways.
In their eagerness to see America, Yang notes that some Chinese RV road trippers may rush from stop to stop, soaking up the experience at breakneck speeds. He explains that it takes a lot of time and money to come all the way from China to the U.S., resulting in high expectations and packed itineraries. Further, most RVs have speed caps that max out at 75 mph and, over the years, many Chinese tourists have asked Yang what’s wrong with their vehicles — why don’t they go faster?
One of the most meaningful parts of RV trips is interacting with fellow travelers. When you park in a camp, Yang says, you never know who your neighbor will be — perhaps another Chinese, an American or someone from a completely different part of the world. At night, travelers meet and greet one another, possibly sharing food or a bonfire. “Although most of our customers do not speak English well, through gestures and body language they somehow figure out a way to communicate with foreigners,” Yang says. “Our customers not only make new friends while learning about other cultures, but also sometimes they find new opportunities for work or even become business partners.”
Last year the Chinese government announced that it wants to build 2,000 campgrounds by 2020, up from an estimated 300, according to Craig Kirby, senior vice president of government relations and general counsel of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. Says Kirby: “When we started [in China] no one knew what RVing was, and now the government references RVing and camping in its Five-Year Plan.”
— Translations by Xiaoying “Nicole” Zhang