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Tourists from China take a photo in front of totem poles in Vancouver's Stanley Park, June 19, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Canadian tourism operators are gearing up to welcome a growing wave of visitors from China, now that the world's most populous country is also the biggest source of international travellers.

The number of Chinese tourists coming to Canada is increasing sharply, creating big opportunities for destinations across the country. But the shift is also raising cultural challenges as operators work to ensure their guests are received in a way that will make them want to return.

"They are the largest outbound travelling cohort anywhere in the world now," said Rob Taylor, vice-president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC), which represents travel businesses across the country. "One of the biggest challenges for Canadian tour operators is to understand the cultural nuances, and provide Chinese travellers with some creature comforts from home." That means not just having tour guides who speak their language, but also providing appropriate food and shopping, and being sensitive to other differences.

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According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, spending by Chinese travellers rose by 25 per cent in 2015 to hit $292-billion (U.S.), now more than double the amount spent by the second-place Americans.

In Canada, where the United States remains Canada's No. 1 source of tourists by far, China ranked No. 3 in the first three months of 2016, when it comes to overnight trips. That's just behind Britain, but China is expected to vault into second place soon.

After decades of travel restrictions that made it difficult for Chinese citizens to travel, even in their own country, there is "huge pent-up demand," among the hundreds of millions of Chinese who can afford to see the rest of the world, said David Goldstein, president of Destination Canada, the Crown agency responsible for marketing Canada as a travel destination.

While Chinese travellers initially tended to go on group tours, now there are more who travel independently, he said. "The level of sophistication has increased tremendously in a very short time," Mr. Goldstein said. Destination Canada is boosting its travel marketing in China, putting special emphasis on getting its message across on Chinese social media. It is also producing a new video series which will be shown in China, featuring a Chinese journalist and a Canadian journalist on a motorcycle road trip across Canada.

One key factor that boosted Chinese travel to Canada was an agreement between the two countries, signed six years ago, which gave Canada "approved destination status." That allowed direct-to-consumer tourism advertising in China, and permitted Chinese group visits. Quicker visa processing has also helped.

Higher demand has led to more direct flights between China and Canada, some of which are bringing Chinese travellers to cities other than Vancouver and Toronto. Last fall, a new thrice-weekly direct flight from Beijing to Montreal was initiated by Air Canada and Air China, and at the end of June, the Chinese carrier Hainan Airlines will begin non-stop service from Beijing to Calgary.

That new flight will accelerate Chinese tourism numbers that are already growing in Alberta, said Stuart Hart, director of market development for Banff & Lake Louise Tourism. He noted that the region has in the past dealt with a big influx from one country, when tourism from Japan jumped in the 1980s and early 1990s. "We adapted well to the spike in Japanese tourism back then, and we'll do so again," he said.

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Restaurants, hotels and other tourism operators in the area want to be prepared for the influx, Mr. Hart said, and recently attended a workshop put on by Grace Xin, a TIAC expert who travels across the country helping businesses understand Chinese cultural issues, as part of the association's "China readiness" program.

She encourages operators to make subtle changes that will ensure Chinese tourists are comfortable. That may include having Chinese-style breakfast items available in restaurants, avoiding numbers that are considered unlucky, or putting pictures of food on a menu if Chinese translations are not available.

It is important that airports, hotels and other operators know that Chinese travellers consider shopping as crucial, Ms. Xin said. "Shopping is the No. 1 favourite activity when they travel," she said. "They want local, original [items] with a story to tell," not trinkets that are made in China.

Those lessons have sunk in at the Capilano Suspension Bridge, a major tourist attraction just outside Vancouver. Marketing vice-president Sue Kaffka said the venue always has at least one Chinese-speaking staff member available in its gift shop, and most of the products are made in Canada.

The number of visitors from China has jumped 350 per cent in the past five years, although that is off a very small base, Ms. Kaffka said. Still, Chinese visitors are now the third largest group coming to the bridge, after Canadians and Americans. The number of Chinese has recently surpassed German, Japanese and British tourists – a "ginormous" increase, Ms. Kaffka said.

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