File Photo: Tourists celebrate in the Golden Dragon Parade in Los Angeles, the United States, Feb. 1, 2014. The 115th Golden Dragon Parade was held to celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year. (Xinhua/Zhang Chaoqun)
NEW YORK, Oct. 4 (Xinhua) -- China-U.S. tourism is on a growth trajectory and has helped expand people-to-people and cultural exchanges between the two countries, a U.S. tourism expert said.
Chris Thompson, president and CEO of Brand USA, an organization dedicated to marketing the United States as a premier travel destination, told Xinhua on Wednesday that bilateral tourism plays a critical role in "bringing cultures and people together for greater understanding."
"In the case of our two nations where the cultures are very different, and the language is obviously a barrier, travel really serves a great way of introducing the destination to the individuals," he said.
According to Brand USA, China has become the number one market for U.S. travel and tourism exports and is its largest market in terms of spending.
In 2016, almost 3 million Chinese people visited the United States, compared with less than 400,000 in 2007, and spent 33 billion U.S. dollars in tourism expenses.
Thompson said they expected "an additional 3 million Chinese visitors in the next three to four years."
The number of Americans visiting China has also grown rapidly over the past few years. The latest statistics show the number of American tourists traveling to China increased by 10.7 percent last year.
The two-way tourist flow has not only brought economic benefits to both countries, the expert said.
"The economic contribution is the one that gets talked about most often because it defines travel as an export. But the soft diplomacy benefits are just as important," he noted.
Having visited China many times before, Thompson believes that "There's nothing like travelling to a destination to really learn about the heart and soul" of the place.
He mentioned that every time he went to China, he "was able to get to know the people better, learn new nuances of the language better."
"The experiences always favorably enhanced my opinion of China.
I think that's also the case (for people) coming into the United States," he said.
Thompson, who has been in the travel business for 35 years, said tourism has benefited China-U.S. relations in recent years.
In November 2014, the two countries extended visa validity for tourists from one to 10 years. Last year, the two sides launched the 2016 China-U.S. Tourism Year.
The visa policy and the year of tourism program have both paid great dividends, Thompson said, adding that leaders of the two sides have created an important platform to "talk about the positive economic and diplomatic contributions of travel and tourism."
"That really helps us realize all the benefits we were looking to accomplish," he said.