Pure Michigan in China? Not for awhile, say tourism officials

Nov 8, 2011

Michigan’s agriculture industry is busy expanding in China.  But the same can’t be said for the state’s tourism industry.  At least not yet.  A million Chinese tourists are expected to visit the U.S. this year.  But only a relative handful will come to the Great Lakes State. 

Fran Wiltgen helps her son Joe, run his business, Joe's Bar and Grill, in South Haven, Michigan.

She says she’d welcome Chinese tourists, if the state could get them to West Michigan.  Summer tourism keeps the bar afloat during the lean winter months, so the more tourists, the better.  And she doesn’t care if they speak English, German or Chinese. 

"You can speak to ‘em," she says.  "Sign language, everything works!"

Tourism experts say Michigan has some unique sights and experiences that Chinese people would probably like, a lot.  Including boating and fishing on the lakes, golf courses and  resorts, Detroit’s casinos, Mackinac Island, Traverse City. 

Wiltgen says add the beach towns along Lake Michigan to that list. 

"They would love it.  South Haven is one of the prettiest places in the country in the summer, it is just- it’s beautiful.  They would love it."

But many Chinese people have no idea where Michigan the state is, let alone South Haven the beach town.  Koralo Chen is owner of Motown Travel, a Detroit-China business travel agency.  He says it’s no wonder, since there are at least five ways to say the state’s name in Chinese.  He thinks Michigan officials who go to China should pick one.

And bad translations are likely adding to our image problem.  Chen says Michigan officials’ business cards are often rife with mistakes on the flip side of the card, where you find the Chinese translation.  He says there was a mistake on the Governor’s card during his recent trade mission.  And then there was a big miscommunication during one of Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano’s many trips to China.  

"The Chinese media put him like, Mr. Bob Ficalo, from state of Mississippi.  That’s in the Chinese media, official media.  That’s a joke!"

Chen calls the mistakes embarrassing and harmful.  If Michigan wants more tourism from China, he says first, involve people who understand the language and culture of both countries.

Tourism boosters say we should be preparing now, even though Chinese visitors to the state are few and far between.   Don Holecek says there’s a big ripple effect from these early visits.  He’s a tourism expert and professor emeritus at Michigan State University.  Holecek says people in China take the experiences of other Chinese travelers to heart.  Show a Chinese tourist a great time, they’ll share it.

"And if you have a bad experience -- you tend to be more willing to share that with your friends and relatives than even if you have a good experience."

Holecek says that good experience should start at the airport.  He thinks security staff at Detroit Metro could use a little sensitivity training so Chinese tourists don’t feel unwelcome.  And travel agents who book Chinese tourists need to do it right, and not just dump people at the hotel with no transportation to the casino and the Henry Ford.   

Holecek says Michigan is new to hosting international travelers and has a steep learning curve ahead.  But he says it’s important if we hope to diversify from manufacturing. 

"We’re really more or less at the beginning of taking tourism as a real serious engine for economic growth."

State tourism officials, though, say it probably makes more sense to spend the state’s scarce tourism ad dollars in Korea or Japan – where it’s easier to get a tourist visa, and where it's easier to advertise, without government media control - and expand to China later.  So, although Governor Snyder says he’d like to run Pure Michigan ads in China, it could be a long time before that will happen.