Ditch the tour guide, hit the road

After a 13-hour flight from Shanghai, Aileen Zhang is fatigued but eager to begin her first trip abroad.

She lands at San Francisco International Airport, retrieves her luggage from the carousel and passes through US Customs. Then it’s off to the car rental counter to pick up the car she reserved online from her home in China.

“It’s very popular among our generation to travel around by renting vehicles,” said Zhang, a software engineer in her late 20s. “Travel agencies might give people well-organized schedules, but what I want is a leisurely trip that’s more free – not to rush from one tourist spot to another.”

During July, she stopped in Los Angeles and other cities along California’s Pacific Coast Highway before driving inland to Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming before ending up at Yellowstone National Park, which straddles three states.

Tourism from China to the US has been on the rise since 2007, when the State Department relaxed its rules to make it easier for Chinese citizens to get short-term visas. The trend is expected to continue: About 1.1 million Chinese visited the US in 2011, and the number is projected to reach 3.2 million visitors in 2016, according to the Commerce Department’s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.

“There is an explosion of travelers coming from China to the US,” said Skip Hull, vice-president of CIC Research Inc, which conducts surveys on behalf of the federal government and private companies.

Washington’s increase in the number of visa slots available to applicants in China this year is also helping push numbers to record highs, including scores of younger Chinese who prefer to travel by rental car, Hull said.

“Similar to the 1980s and Japan, there is a huge volume of independent travelers from China visiting the US,” he said. “We think that, over time, there will be many more younger Chinese traveling on their own instead of depending on travel agencies.”

Among travelers to the US who rent cars, the top three countries of origin in 2011 were Britain, Germany and Japan, according to a report by the Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration. China didn’t appear in the report because its sample size was less than 400 renters, but Hull is sure the number will jump, especially given the “motorized generation” of Chinese in their 20s and early 30s.

“It would be lame to travel around the US other than by driving,” said Yang Liu, a 28-year-old from Beijing who is planning a trip to the US in September. “There are so many desirable places in the US, and traveling by yourself, by car, is a good way to get around and see the real America.”

Yang, who hopes to experience a “typical American lifestyle” during her visit, said, “The last thing I want to do is follow tour guides who organize everything while I just take photos in arranged places with people from my home country.”

China’s younger generation “doesn’t share the same cultural history as the older generations in terms of automobiles”, said Hull. The country’s fast-growing auto industry acclimated Chinese youth to driving and cars from an early age, instilling a desire to explore the world “on their own”.

Independent travelers from China ranged in age from 28 to 45, according to data compiled by Qyer.com, a popular website on which users share anecdotes and information about their trips, such as route planning, sights, hotels, restaurants and car rentals.

Arranging one’s itinerary beforehand based on information gleaned from the Internet is crucial, said Yang, who previously planned trips to Italy and Greece by herself. She finds the information available from fellow independent travelers on Qyer.com “very useful”.

“The best pizza place we went to in Italy was mentioned in a post online. There is no way the travel agencies would take you to that kind of place,” she says.

It’s a challenge to visit an unfamiliar place, let alone a country, on your own. But in the digital age, with information just clicks or screen-touches away, the discovery can be fun and relatively easy.

“We spent two months planning our trip,” said Feng Dan, who traveled around several big West Coast cities.

Information available online is comprehensive, including the US visa application process as well as airline, car rental and hotel reservations, she said.

Traveling by car is a great way to see sights away from big cities and well-worn tourist attractions, said Feng, who appreciates the convenient US interstate highway system.

“I like to grab the wheel and search for the real beauty the country presents on the road. I still remember the endless, crystal-clear blue sky and white curves along the coast when we were driving down the Pacific Coast Highway” and the scenic 17-Mile Drive in Northern California.

Driving in the US is a much different experience than hitting the road in China, said Zhang, the visitor from Shanghai, who savors breathtaking views while behind the wheel.

“Driving in Chinese cities can be very intense sometimes,” she says. “Cars are squeezing on the road in heavily populated cities and people sometimes will suddenly jump out in the street, but people in the US tend to stick to traffic rules.”

American movies and television have fueled many Chinese visitors’ dreams of independent travel, she said.

“Although this is my first time visiting the US, I have familiar feelings while driving down the road. It was thrilling to see many yellow (Chevrolet) Camaros on the street because it reminds me of my favorite American drama, Hawaii Five-0”.

Feng, who was impressed by the natural beauty viewed on her journey as well as the multiracial culture of the US, cautioned that safety concerns can put a damper on the exhilaration of travel.

“Someone broke into our car and stole our bags and cash, as well as passports, when we parked around the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco,” she recalls. “Luckily, the Chinese consulate in San Francisco helped us get new passports in a short time, so we didn’t miss our return flight.”

Young, bilingual Chinese have high expectations about the quality of their travel, particularly when tour guides and group excursions aren’t in the picture.

“It takes more time to travel independently,” said Ji Tingting, marketing manager for Qyer.com. “But people value relaxation and entertainment on their trip over the desire to visit as many attractions as they can.”

Feng recalls not having practiced her English since graduating from college, “but I picked it up during the trip, and we had a great time while chatting with local people”.

Said Yang: “The language barrier might be a problem if you’re going to Europe, but my trip to Italy and Greece proved that as long as you’re an English speaker, you can go anywhere you want.” 

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