This article appeared in Montana’s Missoulian newspaper written by Larry Mayer. (China Ready Partners observation: As Chinese grow in numbers and we see more repeat visitors independent Chinese travelers go off the beaten track and explore gateway communities and more. Self drive is emerging as a “new” model. We also see a need for a more authentic National Park experience and not just a ‘drive-by’ )
BILLINGS – Yellowstone National Park has hired three Mandarin-speaking interpretive rangers this summer to help ease communication with a growing influx of Chinese tourists.
“It’s great to show the Chinese visitors my country, after they showed me theirs,” said Evan Hubbard, one of the rangers, who studied in China for two years. “They are coming here and everything that is so familiar to us is completely foreign to them.”
“During last summer we saw that this could be helpful,” said Rich Jehle, South District resource education ranger in Yellowstone. “We have all kinds of basic safety publications in different languages. But it’s different having someone who can speak directly to a visitor.”
Yellowstone doesn’t track visitation by nation of origin. Instead, the park’s staff is simply relying on a perceived increase, one that the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce has noted, as well.
“We just know it’s a significant number,” said Mary Sue Costello, president of the chamber. “We have felt this switch for probably three or four years.”
“It’s probably been recognized for a few years but last year was where the increase was very evident,” Jehle said.
Chinese visitation to the U.S. increased by 451 percent between 2007 and 2015, according to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Of the 2.1 million Chinese visitors in 2014, 34 percent were on vacation, or more than 740,000.
The trend has been noticed by states that are bringing in experts to help them cater to Chinese visitors. Costello said Montana’s 2015 Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Recreation brought in Haybina Hao, vice president of the National Tour Association, to help Montana businesses adapt.
Hao told Travel Pulse magazine in an interview earlier this year that, “The China market, we have to understand, is culturally very diverse, totally different from the typical North American culture. It’s politically very sensitive, and you need to always be politically correct. It needs to be diplomatically appropriate. So it’s a very challenging market.”
A story in the July 5 Idaho Falls newspaper said the city is seeing a big overflow of Chinese visitors who are on their way to and from Yellowstone and businesses are starting to cater to them with Mandarin speaking hotel receptionists, instructions written in Chinese and the use of translations apps on cellphones by businesses to close the language barrier.
The jump in Chinese tourism to the United States is due to the country’s estimated 300 million members of the middle class – who have more expendable income – and a relaxation of government travel restrictions.
One statistic that Yellowstone does track is the number of buses that pass through the park’s gates. In 2015 the park counted more than 10,500 buses, an increase of 17 percent over 2014, which saw a 21 percent increase from 2013. Tour buses on average have about 50 seats, but it’s not clear what the park counts as a bus. Some may be much smaller.
“We don’t know how they are coming in,” Jehle said. “But there are a lot on tour buses and driving cars.”
The three Mandarin-speaking interpretive rangers have the same duties as any other interpretive ranger – providing information about park resources, orientation, giving formal interpretive programs like guided walks, roving the Old Faithful or Madison areas to talk to visitors informally and providing education on regulations. They also can interpret during medical emergencies.
Hubbard said Chinese tourists in Yellowstone are often looking to other visitors for cues on how to behave.
“There tends to be two very distinct interactions: safety or regulation issues, like walking off the boardwalk in a thermal area,” he said. “That becomes an education opportunity. Often they say they had seen someone else or saw tracks.
“The more fun interaction is hearing Chinese speakers while I’m out roving and I will give them a greeting and their eyes will light up,” Hubbard said. “Usually it’s their first time here and they are excited to have this unique opportunity.”
The three Mandarin-speaking rangers were hired from a pool of about 10 applicants, Jehle said. Two are Caucasians who taught in China and one is Chinese resident who just became a U.S. citizen.
The increase in Chinese tourism comes as Yellowstone is on pace for another year of record visitation. Last year more than 4 million people visited the park, and this year’s monthly statistics show the park is on pace to top last year. With more people, the park’s services – everything from bathroom facilities to roads and parking lots – are being filled to capacity.
Each day the Old Faithful Visitor Center alone records more than 10,000 visitors at this time of the year, Jehle said.
“I would say this has been building for several years,” he said. “Obviously, solving all of the problems of how popular this park is isn’t easy to do. But if we can solve little problems like basic communication to address visitors, it is helpful.”