Hampton Roads looks to attract foreign visitors

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by Associated Press

WVEC.com

Posted on May 26, 2014 at 2:00 PM

Updated Monday, May 26 at 5:25 PM

NORFOLK  (AP) - This month, the city of Virginia Beach joined Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, which boasts more than 500 million users.

During the same week, a handful of German travel writers spent 2 1/2 days touring the region. In Norfolk, they visited the Chrysler Museum and the naval base. In Virginia Beach, their itinerary included kayaking in Back Bay and seeing the Old Coast Guard Station, King Neptune and Pungo.

Both efforts targeted the same goal: attracting more foreign tourists to Hampton Roads.

"That's an emerging market that we're focusing on," said Tony DiFilippo, president and CEO of VisitNorfolk, the city's tourism office. "There's definitely a sense that it's growing."

Increasing the number of international visitors is among the top four goals of the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. The summer tourist rush usually begins on Memorial Day weekend, but Jim Ricketts, the director of the convention bureau, said the push for foreign travelers is linked with the Beach's goal to increase tourism year-round. "In order to do that," he said, "you have to diversify your market."

Two years ago, the city hired Gerda Arnauts, who has worked for Air India and Maryland's economic development department, to promote the Beach with European tour operators and consumers. Based in Brussels, Belgium, Arnauts targets Belgium, France and Germany. She receives $60,000 a year, Ricketts said.

Virginia Beach also is setting its sights elsewhere. Ron Kuhlman, the vice president of tourism marketing and sales, has spent one week in Brazil and another in China in each of the past two years trying to drum up tourist business. Among Kuhlman's accessories: Beach tourism pamphlets translated into Chinese and Portuguese.

Why Brazil and China? Those two countries have experienced among the sharpest increases in travel to the United States in recent years. From 2011 to 2012, the last year that statistics are available, the number of Chinese and Brazilian visitors to Virginia rose 69 percent to 22,000 and 44 percent to 13,000, respectively, the Virginia Tourism Corp. said.

That trend should continue. In December, the U.S. Commerce Department predicted that from 2013 to 2018 the number of travelers to the United States would jump by 219 percent from China and 70 percent from Brazil.

Both countries have "an emerging middle class, which gives them more income and leisure time," DiFilippo said. "A lot of those folks want to see the gateway cities" in this country. "But there's a second wave of travelers looking for the all-American cities, like Norfolk."

International tourists bring alluring advantages: They tend to stay longer and spend more than domestic vacationers.

Travelers from overseas spent an average of $4,460 and stayed 17 nights during their U.S. vacations in 2012, compared with $365 and 2.6 nights for domestic tourists, the U.S. Travel Association reported.

Local tourism officials warn not to expect to hear a cacophony of foreign languages this summer. The overwhelming majority of visitors will remain Americans, and Canada will continue to be the country supplying the next-largest number.

"It's going to take two, three, four years to get our name out there," Ricketts said. "You've got to lay the foundation."

But the Canadian experience, he said, should help rebuff the naysayers. "The pushback was, it's not a lucrative market. You're not going to get any Canadians here."

Virginia Beach estimates that, based on visitor surveys, 8 percent of its summertime visitors are Canadians.

Beyond those numbers, it's tough to gauge the success of the foreign-flung efforts, at least locally.

A record 387,000 foreigners visited Virginia in 2012, up 7 percent from 362,000 in 2011. The numbers do not include visitors from Canada or Mexico.

The statistics, however, are not broken down by city. Beach officials, though, say they've seen positive omens.

Last year, nearly 7,000 people visited the city as part of German tours, Ricketts said. And during a trade show in Chicago last month promoting international travel, he said, the crew from Virginia Beach booked 44 appointments, compared with fewer than 30 last year.

Not every destination, though, sees big payoffs in marketing to overseas visitors.

"Having the Wright Brothers certainly puts us on the map" with foreign tourists, said Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau in North Carolina. "France has a lot to do with early flight, as well."

But Nettles said, "Our international marketing is more directed at Canada. . Certainly, we welcome international audiences. I just don't have the budget to do everything I might like to do."

At Colonial Williamsburg, "other than Canadian foreign visitation, there really isn't much at all," spokesman Jim Bradley said. Of every 100 visitors to the colonial site, five are not Americans, he said. Four of those five come from Canada.

Of Virginia Beach's $10.8 million annual budget for tourism marketing, about 8 percent, or $888,000, is budgeted for overseas travel. Norfolk spends $50,000 of its $1 million budget, or 5 percent, on foreign business.

But the cities aren't going it alone.

The German travel writers who recently visited Hampton Roads were also shown around the Washington area. Their trip was financed not just by local convention bureaus, but also by Capital Region USA, based in Washington.

Capital Region was established in 1997 to market Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to overseas travelers, said its president and CEO, Matt Gaffney. Its annual $1.4 million budget includes contributions from Virginia Tourism Corp. and its counterparts in Maryland and Washington.

It makes sense, DiFilippo said, for cities and states to work together to attract foreign tourists. "They're not coming this far to see one city," DiFilippo said. "They're going to see the whole region."

Kuhlman said he sometimes has to start with the basics during his meetings with tour operators in countries such as China. "They have no concept" of Virginia Beach, he said. "We narrow it down geographically."

Next month, Air China will begin nonstop flights four times a week from Beijing to Dulles International Airport outside Washington. United has been the only airline flying nonstop between the two locations. The additional flights, tourism officials said, will help coax more Chinese visitors to the region. "We can bring them all down here to Virginia Beach," Gov. Terry McAuliffe said at a luncheon at the Oceanfront two weeks ago.

The mid-Atlantic region faces stiff competition from other areas, such as Florida, New York and the West Coast, for Chinese and other foreign tourists. But Gaffney said some overseas vacationers, because of the length of their trips, visit both coasts. And the Mid-Atlantic area, he said, boasts a diversity of assets, including urban and outdoor attractions and historical sites.

Amenities aren't the only selling point. "Part of our job," Kuhlman said, "is to make sure Virginia Beach is friendly to all cultures."

The convention bureau last year held a seminar to heighten sensitivities. One tip for smoothing the way with Chinese tourists: In Chinese tradition, the number 4 has negative associations, while 8 is considered lucky.

So it's best, Kuhlman said, for hotels not to assign Chinese guests to rooms that are on the fourth floor or have "4'' in their number.

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