As China seeks to launch its own national park system, Chinese tourists are flooding into U.S. national parks in unprecedented numbers. Yellowstone and its gateway towns aim to adapt.

BY CLAIRE CELLA

 

The U.S. lays claim to the world’s first national park: Yellowstone. This symbol of conservation and history was established in 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law. The park blankets more than 2.2 million acres across parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, and contains one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. And the planet—particularly China—is fascinated.

In 2015 alone, the U.S. welcomed 2.6 million Chinese tourists and the U.S. Travel Association expects a 97 percent increase within three years. The sheer numbers alone are staggering, but these waves of Chinese visitors, who often travel in tour groups of 50 or more, are affecting America in unlikely and sometimes underprepared places: regions in more rural landscapes such as the Greater Yellowstone.

Brian Riley, owner of Old Hand Holdings, a Jackson, Wyoming-based marketing firm, says a trip to Yellowstone allows Chinese visitors to breathe in the wide-open American West.

“Yellowstone is an icon. It’s famous,” says Riley, whose company works closely with Chinese tour groups and American businesses. “It’s also the antithesis of what they experience every day in large Chinese cities that are plagued with pollution and swelling populations. This is a chance to experience wide-open space, stunning scenery and diverse wildlife.”

A CRESCIVE AND CURIOUS CHINA

 

The People’s Republic of China is the most populous country on Earth, its 1.4 billion citizens accounting for over 14 percent of the world’s total population. This rising global powerhouse also boasts the second largest economy, behind only the U.S., and has seen the fastest expansion in GDP by a major economy in history, according to the World Bank. China’s economic success and rapid advancement, however, may be threatening a more precious form of the country’s capital: nature.

While China has 225 “national parks,” they don’t resemble a coordinated system with central management and funding like the U.S. National Park Service, but rather a patchwork of forests and reserves. The Chinese government is in the process of building its own national park system and by 2020 hopes to launch a pilot park that will help pave the way for dozens of others down the road. The new system aims to develop a link between what currently exists, while also establishing new parks that take into consideration environmental protections, national regulations and development. Designed as a preserve for the Siberian tiger and Amur leopard among other wildlife, the park will straddle the Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces near the Russian border, encompassing 60 percent more land than Yellowstone National Park. As usual, China is ready to compete.

But until the park gates open, Chinese citizens will continue to travel internationally, visiting ecologically rich natural areas that have the proper infrastructure to accommodate tourists. Three years ago it became easier for the Chinese to visit what is universally regarded as the world’s best model for a national park system: America’s.

In late 2014, despite more than 20 years of a complex and often contentious relationship, the U.S. and China shook hands in a rare pact, vowing to curb greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades. It was significant news, but because of its prominence a series of other deals between the two countries largely went unnoticed.

One agreement in particular outlined that both countries extend the validity of short-term business and tourist visas from one year to 10. In the past, for instance, Chinese citizens could only stay in the U.S. for a year on B-1 and B-2 visitor visas before having to exit the country. Under new visa regulations, they are allowed multiple entries of up to six months over a 10-year period—making it more reasonable to take not only longer trips to the States, but to return more frequently as well.

Within a year of the accord, Chinese visa applications to the U.S. spiked over 58 percent, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Currently, China trails only Mexico and Canada in terms of visitor numbers, but it may not be in third place for long. By 2021, the U.S. Travel Association expects China to take the lead in international travel to the States.

While popular metropolitan areas like New York City and Los Angeles can easily absorb these influxes, it’s a different situation for Yellowstone and the humble gateway communities that border this impressive stretch of wild land. And even though the region is no stranger to tour buses and summer crowds, there’s now an additional and accelerated pressure to adapt to a new cultural diversity, one that’s forcing area stakeholders to rethink their approach to tourism and communication.

YELLOWSTONE’S STEWARDS AND SAFEGUARDS

 

Many Chinese are introduced to Yellowstone through textbook pictures as schoolchildren, and grow up dreaming of crossing this natural wonder off their bucket lists. Over the past few years, they’re doing just that, and joining a growing list of tourists seeking Yellowstone’s splendor every year.

In 2016, the park reported 4.2 million visits, a 4 percent increase over 2015 and 21 percent higher than 2014. While its personnel expected larger-than-usual crowds due to the Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016, they also noticed a dramatic surge in the number of commercial tour buses that pulled through the park. Last year, 12,778 buses entered Yellowstone, a nearly 50 percent increase over 2014. And while these buses do not solely serve Asian clientele and the NPS does not record visitors’ country of origin, park employees speak anecdotally to the noticeable rise in Asian visitation via these bus companies.

As overall yearly visitation continues to climb, Yellowstone staff is aware of how this trend is testing the park’s infrastructure and management—from transportation to safety to lodging to conservation. In an effort to prevent any diminishing visitor experiences and to better understand guest needs, Yellowstone launched a social science study in August of 2016, gathering information about visitor demographics, experiences, opinions and preferences, with results to be released later this year.

The management also became proactive, publishing a Mandarin translation of their Old Faithful Area Guide and unveiling “The Yellowstone Pledge,” or a standard of conduct that outlines ways in which visitors should act in the park to maintain safety and protect natural resources. It was created in hopes of preventing behaviors that have caused incidents in the past, such as approaching wildlife, leaving boardwalks in thermal areas and being unprepared in bear country.

In visitor centers and wayside exhibits, new signs have been added and older ones updated, based on the park’s constant evaluation, says Yellowstone public affairs specialist Morgan Warthin. The new signs incorporate foreign language translations—Mandarin included—to explain safety, regulatory and educational messages and alleviate cultural misunderstandings.

“We are constantly evaluating signs based on visitation,” Warthin says. “We certainly saw an increase in Asian tourists and wanted to be able to share information with them.”

One example of new signage involves the pit toilets in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, which instruct visitors on how to use them. They were installed after park officials, according to the Jackson Hole News & Guide, noticed the toilets were continually breaking as a result of Asian visitors squatting with their feet on the seats as they are used to doing in their own countries.

To the south, Grand Teton National Park has also taken steps to welcome the ever-growing and ever-diverse crowds the two parks share. The Grand Teton Association, a nonprofit that helps support the park, worked closely with Old Hand Holdings’ Riley to develop Mandarin materials for the park’s bookstores, while hosting webinars with other park nonprofits about marketing to and serving Chinese visitors.

Riley developed his company in the early 2010s specifically to help local businesses surrounding Yellowstone market their services to the Chinese, like the GTA. In the years since, his presence has grown—physically and virtually. He has VIP tour businesses based in L.A. and Las Vegas, and in 2015 launched Escape, Jackson’s first and only magazine printed entirely in Mandarin. In 2016 the GTA published its book, The Best of Grand Teton National Park, in Mandarin and hopes to provide it to Chinese travelers before they even arrive in the U.S., says Jan Lynch, GTA’s executive director. Lynch sees the experience as a way to understand other cultures as well as to reflect on our own.

“There are different ideas about respect and politeness and traffic and lines and even bathroom etiquette,” she says. “The little things we don’t think about until someone is from a different place. In certain situations, they don’t understand and neither do we.”

"Everyone has their own way of thinking and looking at things. We don’t change when we visit their country, so it’s not right to expect them to change for us here."

 

While there have been incidents, people behaving badly is universal. Among other offenses within the park in 2016, a Chinese tourist was fined $1,000 for walking off a boardwalk to collect thermal water, and three Canadians were sentenced to jail time and issued heavy fines for walking onto the Grand Prismatic Spring.

More often than not, episodes involving international visitors are a result of curious naïveté or cultural difference, especially if the visitor comes from a country where the customs and landscape vary dramatically. For many Chinese, it’s their first time traveling outside China, let alone seeing a herd of bison or vibrant neon rings of steaming water. Eric Schluessel, assistant professor of history and political science and the director of East Asian studies at the University of Montana, explains that it’s a geographical difference in interpretations of nature, too, as many Chinese grow up in the countryside where nature is inherently touchable.

“In the U.S. we have this sense of the outdoors can be foreign, hostile and sacred in the sense that you aren’t allowed to touch it,” Schlussel says. “But in China, that’s often not the case.”

Yellowstone’s public education component becomes critical, then, as park officials are tasked with explaining etiquette to those being exposed to something for the first time, who hold divergent worldviews or who may not speak English. Last year, Yellowstone hired three Mandarin-speaking staff to manage visitor centers and conduct ranger programs, and Warthin expects the park to hire three or four again to work the 2017 season. The park also developed wildlife-warning flyers and safety cards, specifically about bison, and wraps their newspapers in safety information—all of which are translated in Mandarin and other languages.

But, even though park rangers and documents warn visitors to remain at least 25 yards from bison, visitors often don’t listen or don’t understand the dangers due to gaps in culture, in language, or both. In 2015 alone, bison gored five visitors who wandered too close—a particularly high number since the average is usually one incident per year. It serves as an example for the importance of clear communication.

Which is what Jennifer Thomsen, from the University of Montana’s Department of Society and Conservation, found after she conducted a study in West Yellowstone in August 2016 in collaboration with the town’s chamber of commerce and Yellowstone. The study involved interviews with 13 local business owners and workers in West Yellowstone, seven tour operators and 33 Chinese tourists.

Her results illuminated the critical importance of communication between the park, gateway communities and visitors. Responses from tour bus operators and visitors, in particular, indicated that park messaging is often miscommunicated or not communicated at all. Thomsen will present these findings at the end of this summer, and says they will help inform Yellowstone’s gateway communities and the Park Service how they can better reach, communicate with, and ensure the safety and satisfaction of this group of clientele.

“This research will serve as a stepping stone to develop further resources and to open a forum for dialogue,” she says. “We’ll be able to analyze how useful our interpretive materials are … and how we can be more successful at linking the needs and cultural differences we’re seeing with these groups to the communication and resources we’re providing.”

BEYOND BOUNDARIES: GATEWAY COMMUNITIES

 

Once visitors leave one of the five gates of Yellowstone, they often stay in the communities that lie at these boundaries—Cody and Jackson in Wyoming, and West Yellowstone, Gardiner and Cooke City in Montana.

Because of its proximity to Old Faithful and interstate highways, and the fact that it’s the first gate open and the last to close each season, nearly 40 percent of the park’s traffic comes in and out of West Yellowstone. As a result, West, as the 1,500 year-round residents colloquially refer to it, has seen the most impact from the pronounced increase in Chinese tourism, according to Wendy Swenson, marketing director for the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce. The increases began about three years ago, she says, right around the time they heard the visa rules were changing.

In response, Swenson and the Montana Office of Tourism began hosting workshops and seminars for local businesses in West and other tourist centers across the state, and Wyoming has done similar work, according to Ken Elliott, director of global sales at the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. This year’s Wyoming Governor’s Hospitality and Tourism Conference included a panel called “China Ready” to provide an overview of Chinese tourism trends and recommendations for how to better attract, serve and communicate with Chinese tourists.

During these workshops, local business owners gain specific insights into Chinese culture, including, for example, what amenities to have on hand: Chinese prefer tea over coffee; they’re known to heat up instant noodle cups with hot water to take on the go; and access to fresh fruits and vegetables is important. With this information, businesses in West have, for the most part, adjusted to accommodate: translating road signs into Mandarin, including more pictures and less text on their menus, and putting hot-water kettles in their lobbies. Many businesses are hiring Mandarin-speaking employees for the summer season and in 2015, the public library in West started holding Mandarin classes.

Bullwinkle’s Saloon & Eatery, a family-owned restaurant in operation for over 20 years in West, has always offered short ribs, bison burgers and elk ravioli, but now also serves tuna sashimi and Szechuan green beans. At Yellowstone Lodge, the management tweaked breakfast offerings to avoid confusion (hard-boiled eggs were being microwaved so now they only offer the scrambled variety) and they make hot water available in the lobby 24/7.

This mostly quiet Montana town still finds the new demands challenging, though. Jeremy Medeiros, assistant general manager and sales manager of Yellowstone Lodge, says language barriers can be frustrating for business owners and their employees. “When these customers make up the bulk of your business and you cannot communicate with them, it’s hard,” he says. “You end up speaking a sort of sign language with them just to find out that they need an extra pillow.”

Swenson also notes that while larger, national chains have the ability and the finances to make quick and sometimes extensive updates, other family-owned businesses that have been operating in the community for decades, express difficulty in trying to keep up with escalating crowds, divergent cultural values and the extended summer travel period.

“The season starts the day the park opens and it just doesn’t stop, for seven months out of the year,” said Jacob Dibble, the head chef of Bullwinkle’s, which has a separate catering hall that can fit up to 70 people. Elliott, of Jackson’s Chamber of Commerce, also noticed that summer is markedly busier and longer. For the past three years, tourist buses have pulled up to storefronts in Jackson as early as May, capitalizing on more room availability and lower prices.

Swenson reminds local owners and managers to be patient with cultural differences, too; that often the behavior of international visitors is not meant to be rude. “It’s a part of their culture and their country,” she said. “Everyone has their own way of thinking and looking at things. We don’t change when we visit their country, so it’s not right to expect them to change for us here.”

An example of this is the variance in acceptable amounts of personal space. Americans tend to value elbow room and don’t enjoy when this space is infringed upon. However, when the Chinese face crowds—which they encounter much more frequently at home—there tends to be more pushing and jostling, as the Chinese don’t shirk from being in close contact, Swenson says.

Schluessel, the East Asian Studies director from UM, explains that Chinese tourists are not familiar with the politics of the Western queue. “That’s the experience of the last 100 years of Chinese history: there’s an entire generation of Chinese who experienced collective and centralized food distribution,” he says. “If you’re the last person in line, you won’t get anything, so you strategically find the best place to stand. There’s a sense that lining up is arbitrary and a tool of power. It has nothing to do … with respect for the people around you.”

Schluessel also pointed out that large numbers of Chinese live in dense urban centers where there’s a forced need to use space differently. “Many of the tourists you encounter in these parks have had to share a room with three other people. It’s not a thing of culture, but of historical experience.”

While the easing of visa restrictions remains a primary reason Chinese tourists can more readily travel to the U.S., there’s another plotline, too. In recent years, the growth of China’s middle class, and their increasing affluence, has also made travel abroad more accessible. And research shows they’re spending more money when they visit—on average, more than any other country. In 2015, that was about $7,201 per trip to the States, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

These high numbers make this particular market something U.S. businesses are picking up on. In West, shops started advertising “Made in USA” products, noticing that Chinese travelers seek authentic Western culture and enjoy buying related items (cowboy hats, boots, leather, belt buckles).

At the end of the day, Swenson says, “tourism is what we do,” and the extra visitation has been an economic boon for the small town of West and the other gateway communities.

INFORMING CHINA’S NATIONAL PARKS

 

As it becomes easier for the Chinese to travel for less and for longer, doors will open for a richer experience with what Dwight Pitcaithley calls a “world-class collection of science, history and archaeology” in the U.S. national parks.
Pitcaithley worked for 30 years with the Park Service, 10 of that as its chief historian. His biggest concern, too, is not the number of people flooding into the parks, but how much of the Park Service’s educational mission is being communicated and understood; how much cultural and historical knowledge is being exchanged.

“Have we created every opportunity to slow them down and understand this historical or natural park?” Pitcaithley wonders. “You can take the bus tour through Zion [National Park in Utah] and be flabbergasted by the scenery without knowing about the geology. But to really grasp what [national parks are] about, you have to slow down and see the film and look at the exhibits.”

This may not be a simple fix, however. “The Park Service doesn’t have a lot of money,” Pitcaithley adds. Based on current reports, it’s not getting more anytime soon, either. In mid-March, President Donald Trump released his “America First” budget blueprint for 2018, which outlines proposals for downsizing government spending. Included was a budget slashing of nearly 12 percent (or $1.5 billion) from the Department of the Interior, which supervises the NPS. While ultimately Congress will determine the final plan, these initial cuts are worrisome, and the NPS is already struggling to reduce its $12.5 billion backlog in maintenance and operations.

The through-line? This leaves little money, if any, to help the Park Service cater to its growing number of visitors’ increasingly diverse and specific needs. “The worst of the squeaky wheels gets the grease,” says Pitcaithley, and most of the budget is devoted to salaries and benefits before covering operating costs to keep current facilities running: installing new roofs, updating sewage systems, fixing elevators, mowing lawns.

In the end, Pitcaithley remains optimistic. “It could be worse,” he says with a small chuckle. “You could’ve opened the doors and nobody came.”

For the Park Service, the question over the next few years will become one of cost-benefit analysis: How can it creatively maximize funding to ensure visitors get through the park safely, enjoy themselves and feel good about their experience? If it can be successful in this endeavor, challenging as it is, Yellowstone visitors—in this case, the Chinese—can bring home this experience to their country. They can inform their fledgling national park system with similar values of conservation, stewardship, wildlife protections, an appreciation for vast green spaces and clean, clear air, a love of nature—and the importance of sufficiently funding this critical system.

Claire Cella grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains before moving to Austin, Texas, to pursue degrees in English, journalism and information science. In 2010-2011, she lived in Thailand and developed a lingering fascination for the breadth of culture she found traveling across the Asian continent. She now lives and works in Lander, Wyoming.