TRAVEL GAZETTE – Houston, America’s fourth largest city, welcomed a record 17.5 million visitors — including 9 percent more Chinese and other international travelers — in 2015, putting the city well on track to meet its goal of 20 million business and leisure visitors by 2017.
That’s largely due to improved accommodations from the city’s hospitality service industry that includes more than 300 owners, general managers and operators of hotels and other lodging facilities, along with 12,500 restaurants and hundreds of travel-related businesses.
All together, Houston’s hospitality services employ a workforce of more than 135,000 people who increasingly speak languages in addition to English and companies with departments devoted to the languages and needs of visitors from other countries.
“Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau has provided service to the travel trade and media, and has had a representation office (for) the Asia Pacific for the last 10 years,” said Leo Yao, one of the Asia Pacific representatives for the Bureau, which released the Houston First Corporation’s tourism statistics for Houston earlier this month.
“We (also) have an office in Beijing for promoting Houston tourism,” he added.
The Beijing branch office is considered a partner with the Bureau’s Houston operations, Yao said, especially for hosting business from China.
“The (Bureau) is helping them to connect with and research the local resources,” he said. “Hotels in Houston area start to provide in-room products to the Chinese customers and provide Chinese language speaking staff.”
Yao said a booklet about tax-free shopping in Texas is also provided in Chinese to assist visiting shoppers get tax refunds on products purchased within the state.
“More local travel-related companies are sending sales persons to China to promote their services,” Yao said.
Sharon Mellow, who works at one of the larger travel agencies booking luxury cruises from Houston, agreed that it is important for the local travel industry to cater to Chinese tourists.
“At our company, we have an entire Chinese division with agents fluent in Chinese languages,” Mellow said.
According to the Bureau’s information, air travel is also experiencing an upward move, up 3.7 percent in 2015 to 55.1 million overall, according to Houston Airport System statistics, and an increase in international air traffic of 9.5 percent over 2014.
Data from the U.S. Commerce Department shows Houston as the second fastest-growing destination in the nation for visitors from overseas.
The Bureau’s information also shows 2015 was a busy year for the hospitality service industry involved in conventions, showing a 29 percent increase — or about 733,000 room nights for future conventions — over 2014 bookings.
Another leap in 2015 occurred in business reported by the Greater Houston Restaurant Association. Melissa Stewart. the association’s executive director, said the Houston restaurant industry continues upward despite the drop in oil prices that has minimally tempered the growth of the Houston economy.
“The most recent data shows a 2 percent growth of the Houston restaurant sector in 2015,” Stewart said.
“Nationally for the same time, the restaurant industry declined by point-6 percent.”
Stewart said that she expects the Houston restaurant growth experienced in 2015 to continue throughout the current year and beyond.
“Houston is ramping up our international promotion for tourism and conventions,” she said.
“Within Houston, we as a community embrace our international citizens and look forward to all opportunities to showcase our city to the world.”