MUSCATINE — Will Chinese tourists follow the example of their new leader, Xi Jinping, by walking in his Muscatine footsteps?
Two Muscatine boosters — Heather Shoppa, who runs the Muscatine Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Mayor DeWayne Hopkins — think that could well be the case.
Hopkins, who led a delegation of Muscatine visitors to China last month, said he knows from his visit that Chinese tourists who can afford to will want to see the cities in the U.S. that their leader saw during his February visit.
Two of those cities were predictable stops — Washington, D.C., to meet with President Obama, and Los Angeles, an important port for Chinese goods.
The other American cities that Xi took in were Des Moines, where Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad hosted a state dinner, and Muscatine, where Xi visited the home of Roger and Sarah Lande. The Muscatine visit was reported by media from around the world.
Xi returned to Muscatine to reconnect with the people he met during a 1985 visit when he was a Hibei Province agricultural official. The group has since been dubbed “The Old Friends,” as Xi referred to them.
Shoppa said she has not yet received any requests from
Chinese tourists “but I do see the potential for that happening. I think the Chinese truly love their new president, and we now have this special connection.”
“This tiny town in the middle of the United States, a town that doesn’t flex a lot of political muscle, is going to intrigue (visitors) because it has heart and soul.”
“Foreign visitors will be so impressed with what they find,” she added. “It’s not Disney World, but it will be a great, memorable experience. I think when they get back they will tell their friends and family, share their experiences — and hopefully that will snowball.”
Shoppa said organizations such as the Mississippi River Parkway Commission will be able to tie together river cities into travel packages for Chinese and other visitors.
She speculates that Chinese visitors will also be interested in Native American culture, such as Toolesboro Mounds and Museum in Louisa County or the Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island.
Combining communities and attractions is the strategy that Travel Iowa, the state’s official tourism agency, uses to lure international visitors, said Jessica O’Riley, the agency’s tourism communications manager.
“We don’t do a lot of international promotion, because we don’t have the budget to reach out and advertise,” O’Riley said. “But we do work with the Mississippi River Parkway Commission, and we have a travel guide available online, which we will certainly send if somebody asks for it.”
One way that travel promotion groups can reach out to people in other countries is to — literally — speak their language as they seek international travelers.
As she awaits an overhaul of the website for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Shoppa heard from a friend who’s a tourism official in Ottumwa that it’s a relatively straightforward process to install a translator on a website to render the information in the native tongue of the person who’s using it.
The Mississippi River Parkway Commission has received a grant to develop a smartphone app that will enhance the visit of Japanese-speaking tourists to river communities.
“When foreign visitors come to the Midwest and want to see our beautiful river, they already have a device in their hands to allow them to more fully enjoy the experience,” Shoppa said. “Those folks speak English well, but it is nice to have technology to add extra value to their trip.”