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In a tough year, a welcome jump in Chinese visitors

In the first five months of 2012, residents from China made 115,200 trips to Canada, a 22.9-per-cent increase from the same period in 2011.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/j.p. moczulski The Globe and Mail

The buses pull up in front of the Roots store on the corner of Robson and Burrard three or four times a week during the summer, ejecting a gaggle of tourists looking for that perfect piece of Canadiana to bring back home.

Offering sporty outdoor clothing adorned with its iconic beaver logo, Roots has long relied on visitors from other countries to drive sales. But the company has had to adapt to a new group of customers that is growing faster than travellers from any other country.

The buses are full of tourists from mainland China, and almost all of the managers at the Roots flagship store in downtown Vancouver now speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Chinese visitors are quickly becoming one of Roots' largest client groups.

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"We're definitely relying more on the Asian market," said Leanne Green, one of the store's managers.

Canada's tourist industry is suffering through a difficult year and travel is down because of economic troubles in the United States and Europe. According to Statistics Canada, the number of visitors to Canada from the United States fell by 0.5 per cent in May compared to April and travel by residents from abroad slipped 0.6 per cent during the same period.

One bright spot, however, is the number of visitors from Asia and particularly mainland China. In the first five months of 2012, residents from China made 115,200 trips to Canada, a 22.9 per cent increase from the same period in 2011.

China has now overtaken Australia as the fourth-largest overseas market for visitors to Canada behind the U.K., France and Germany.

With its relatively strong economic growth that has created a new class of wealthy travellers among its 1.3 billion citizens, China is now one of the world's most influential markets for international tourists. More than 77 million Chinese travellers are expected to take a trip overseas this year and Western countries are aggressively courting their business.

When it comes to attracting tourists from China, however, Canada is playing catchup. China only granted Canada Approved Destination Status in December, 2009, one of the last major western countries to earn the designation, which allows Chinese tourism agents to advertise and organize tour groups to Canada. The distinction was granted during Stephen Harper's first visit to China. At the time, he was scolded by one of China's top government officials for having waited five years since being elected prime minister to finally make the trip.

Courting Chinese tourists is just one element of Ottawa's abrupt about-face on Chinese relations. In its early years, the Conservative government publicly criticized China's human rights record and in a diplomatic snub, the prime minister did not attend the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Now, with its support of the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, the government is actively targeting China as a potential alternative destination (to the United States) for bitumen produced in the Alberta oil sands. As the U.S. economy has faltered, relations between Canada and China have warmed considerably.

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The growing influence of Chinese tourists can be seen throughout Canada's hospitality industry. Fairmont Hotels and Resorts recently added dishes such as congee to the menu at many of their Canadian locations. At most Vancouver hotels, there is no fourth, fourteenth or twenty-fourth floor, as the number four, which sounds similar to the word for death in Mandarin, is considered bad luck.

Elisabeth Forsaa, a volunteer with Tourism Vancouver, patrols the streets offering visitors directions and other advice, and also works for a downtown hotel. She said Chinese tourists often speak less English than visitors from other Asian countries. Ms. Forsaa is now studyng Mandarin. "Even when I am able to only stutter a few words of Chinese, it's very much appreciated by the guests," she said.

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