China is poised to overtake Britain as Canada's second-largest source of foreign tourists.
The shift is expected to take place around the end of this year, leaving only the United States ahead of China when it comes to visitors entering this country.
Data from Statistics Canada show Britain still ahead of China for the first four months of 2015, but China's numbers are growing so quickly that it will soon move up into second place. From January to April, 134,392 visitors came from Britain and 107,351 from China, but the Chinese numbers are up 20.4 per cent from 2014.
The change in rankings was expected to happen in 2016, said David Goldstein, president of Destination Canada, the Crown agency responsible for selling Canada as a travel destination. But based on trends in the first few months of this year, it will occur earlier, he said.
"We talk about mature markets and emerging markets," Mr. Goldstein said. "China has now emerged. … It is a juggernaut."
The growing middle class in China is one factor increasing Chinese tourism to Canada. Another key factor was an agreement between the two governments signed five years ago, which gave Canada "approved destination status." This allowed direct-to-consumer tourism advertising in China, and permitted Chinese group visits. Quicker visa processing has also helped.
The higher demand means there has also been a sharp increase in the number of flights between the two countries.
Meanwhile, the rise in the number of Chinese travellers has forced Canadian tourist operators to adapt, Mr. Goldstein said, "just as the Rockies had to get accustomed, 20 years ago, to a huge wave of Japanese tourists."
That means making sure that appropriate food offerings are available, for example, and that menus and guidebooks are printed in Chinese.
Chinese visitors are travelling throughout Canada, Mr. Goldstein said, and not just sticking to the West Coast or the Toronto-Niagara Falls region. Air China has just announced a direct flight from Beijing to Montreal starting this fall, a sign there is sufficient demand for that route, he said.
Despite the rise of Chinese tourism, the United States is still firmly the No. 1 source of travellers coming to Canada. In the first four months of 2015, almost 2.3 million Americans came across the border and stayed at least one night, more than double the number who came from the rest of the world combined.
Destination Canada, which until recently was known as the Canadian Tourism Commission, will soon resume promotion of Canadian tourism in the United States. Three years ago, its budget was slashed and it sharply cut back its U.S. activities. But in May, the government said it will add $30-million to the organization's budget over the next three years specifically to resume promotion south of the border.
Mr. Goldstein said the new U.S. marketing effort – which will rely more heavily on social media and co-operative programs with tour operators rather than traditional advertising – will start in the coming months. In the meantime, U.S. travel to Canada is increasing anyway. Overnight trips were up almost 6 per cent in the first four months of 2015 compared with the year before.
"There is pent-up demand in [the U.S.] market, even unaided," Mr. Goldstein said. The low Canadian dollar has been a factor, he acknowledged, but U.S. travel could really boom if it gets a boost from targeted promotion.
More broadly, Mr. Goldstein said Canadian tourism promotion efforts will now be geared toward attracting a younger demographic than they have in the past. Canada's great outdoors is "very compelling to younger travellers" who like to explore, he said, and this needs to be emphasized. "Canada is just built for that."
In addition, "millennials stay longer and spend more money than people think," he said, although less of their budget goes to hotels and more is spent on food, drink and cultural activities.
Overall travel to Canada is on track to increase about 5 per cent in 2015, the first time it will hit that number in more than a decade.
In the first four months of 2015, the only major source of Canadian tourism that shrunk is Germany, where traffic fell by 7 per cent. That is mainly a result of a cut in the number of available airline seats, Mr. Goldstein said, and should be a short-term anomaly.