China Welcome: Ithaca and Tompkins County want to make area more inviting

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By Jamie Swinnerton

Tompkins Weekly

 

With a few relatively easy to accomplish efforts, the Corning Museum of Glass has become one of the most popular area attractions for tourists and visitors from China. Now, Ithaca and Tompkins County are working to mimic some of those efforts, and more, in order to make the area more welcoming and inviting place for Chinese visitors to not only come to but stay and explore.

“The idea started with the airport,” said Mike Hall, director of the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport. “We reach out rather broadly looking for ideas to improve our service and one of the conferences that we go to every year is put on by the Boyd Group. At that conference Ewan saw China Welcome as a presentation and we came back and we talked about it and realized that this was a great opportunity for our community because – I don’t want to say we were taking things for granted but we were not leveraging the assets that we have here and the explosive growth of Pacific Rim attendance at Cornell University.”

On Wednesday, May 9, this conversation was opened up to local business and community leaders with several presentations at Emerson Suites on the Ithaca College campus. Through the network of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, local business owners were invited to come hear from speakers from China NiHao, a company that works with communities to attract Chinese leisure and business visits, and the New York State Division of Tourism about what Chinese travelers want and need, and how New York has built its own marketing campaign aimed at Chinese tourists.

“We could certainly be more welcoming,” Hall said. “The University, within its community, has done a terrific job with students. It’s the broader community that needs to do more of what Cornell does out of necessity.”

Speakers from China NiHao gave attendees numerous examples of assets already available in the area that could be capitalized on. Because Chinese citizens are not allowed to own guns, speakers Jack Lok and Chris Spring said, when visiting the United States, they enjoy hunting. Instead of paying in cash, a lot of Chinese travelers prefer to pay with debit or credit cards, or through mobile payment methods like UnionPay, AliPay.com, or, most popular, WeChat Pay.

Because the Chinese government blocks access to many social media sites, including Facebook, in China one of the most popular apps is WeChat, an all-encompassing mobile experience that can do what Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and PayPal can do on one platform. Before the conference was over several businesses and local organizations had created their own WeChat profiles.

“This was a first step, today,” Hall said. “I was very, very pleased by the energy and the discussion. I think there’s no doubt that we’re going to see steadily increasing interest in our community from travelers from the Pacific Rim and China.”

But this idea doesn’t have to just be about China, Hall said. This is an example that can be applied to numerous other countries. For the hospitality market in the area, easy examples of steps local business can take creating fliers in other languages that explain available services and promotions, create signs in other languages to tell guests where they can find the hotel facilities or where they can and cannot smoke, and be mindful of important aspects of different cultures that could negatively impact your business. For example, in Chinese culture, the number four is considered very bad luck.

Tompkins County, Hall explained, is a welcoming place for international travelers, and it’s important to remain that way.

“There’s an awful lot in this country right now, as we’ve gone through this nationalistic spasm in politics around the world, where foreign visitors, investors, immigrants don’t feel welcome,” Hall said. “They feel welcome in Tompkins County.”

After attending the initial conference and deciding to pursue the idea, Hall said he and his team turned to an obvious local partner, The Chamber of Commerce, to continue and expand on the plan. Local businesses will likely be the faces of Tompkins County to international visitors, and many of the suggestions given at the conference were aimed specifically at the players in the local economy. But, these efforts and suggestions are not the entire Welcome China plan. This is a journey, as Hall explained it, and it’s just the beginning.

“This was the awareness, now we start looking at what are the many things we can do to refine our welcome message?” Hall said. “And we’ll really miss an opportunity if we don’t turn inward a little bit.”

Hall’s vision includes a social aspect as well, where different communities will work together to bridge divides, learn to communicate across differences and create a greater understanding within the local community, and with guests that visit.

“You have the community you build and ours is, fortunately, a very good one, but it’s not a perfect one and we need to work on building a better community,” Hall said.

Among the local community and business leaders at the conference were local organizations too. The YMCA of Ithaca and Tompkins County was represented by CEO Frank Towner, who said a large portion of YMCA members come from the local Asian community. Although a large part of China Welcome is about creating a welcoming environment for visitors, it is also about connecting with the Asian American population already here.

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