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Chinese Tourism Growth to U.S. National Parks and Gateway Communities: A Case Study in West Yellowstone, Montana

Jennifer M. Thomsen, Kira Tenney

Abstract


Chinese outbound tourism is one of the fastest growing industries worldwide, and with this growth, there has been a surge in international tourism to national parks. For example, 40% of Chinese travelers visited a national park during their U.S. travels (Office of Travel and Tourism Industries [OTTI], 2016). As one of the most popular national parks in the world, Yellowstone National Park (YELL) has swelled in Chinese visitation (Resource Systems Group [RSG], 2017). Despite positive economic aspects of increased tourism, parks and communities are faced with challenges that can impact management and the tourists’ experience. There is extremely limited research on Chinese tourism to U.S. national parks, and this study addresses these gaps through a case study in West Yellowstone, the most popular gateway community of YELL. Through over 50 interviews with Chinese tourists, tour operators, and local business owners, specifically, we aim to gain a greater understanding of: 1) Chinese travel trends and motivations for visiting national parks, 2) Chinese tourists’ perceptions of park resources, 3) Chinese tourists’ modes for communication and information exchange, and 4) perceptions and strategies implemented by businesses in gateway communities to adapt to Chinese tourism.

Major findings of the study include that Chinese tourists at YELL primarily obtain their information from friends, family, and Chinese websites with limited tourists visiting or using the National Park Service (NPS) YELL website. Our findings suggest that national park and gateway community communications on social media apps such as WeChat are a major area for growth and opportunity. Finally, the gateway community of West Yellowstone is experiencing changes due to an influx of Chinese-owned businesses and tourists, and offer insight for how to adapt to change. 

This study addresses a largely understudied topic despite the growing trends of Chinese tourists to national parks and protected areas globally. The study’s findings will be of interest to other parks and protected areas around the world that are experiencing or are anticipating Chinese tourism growth, and offers implications for Chinese tourism communication and marketing outside the national park setting. Finally, our exploratory study presents an opportunity for researchers and practitioners to further study Chinese tourism to national parks and gateway communities in diverse settings, which can lead to comparability of findings and also support dialogue around tourism planning, marketing, communication for protected areas and their gateway communities. 

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Keywords


Chinese; community; national park; protected area; tourism; visitation

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.18666/JPRA-2019-9548

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