Those L.V. and Michael Kors handbags going home with Chinese tourists every year represent more than half the exports the U.S. sends to China. Yes, 57% of U.S. exports to China are the money spent by the 2.5 million Chinese visitors. And nearly as many Americans are touring China each year.

It’s no surprise that Presidents Xi and Obama declared 2016 to be the Year of China-U.S. Tourism. I was fortunate to be invited by the Chinese National Tourism Administration to the ceremonies that kicked off the year in China. The biggest event was held at the Jinshanling section of The Great Wall in late March, a few weeks after the beginning of the Year of the Monkey.

Jinshanling tourism launch ceremony

A launch ceremony entitled “1,000 Americans visiting The Great Wall” featured hundreds of local dancers in traditional costumes, speeches by officials of both countries and even a warm-up routine from 2014 Olympic ice dancing gold medalists, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

Stephen Henson Meryl Davis Charlie White

I have climbed various sections of the Great Wall dozens of times over the years, but this venue was special. The restored Jinshanling section in Hebei province is spectacular, as was the blue-sky day and the costumed locals playing traditional instruments high above the countryside. What a way to kick off a year of tourism.

Jinshanling girl in headdress

Only 6% of Chinese have passports and only 3% of those people visited the U.S. last year. Yet they spent about $24 billion. With a growing middle class anxious to travel abroad, it’s no wonder China is expected to become the largest source of inbound tourism for the U.S. within the next few years. And appropo that visas between the two countries now carry a 10-year term!

For a decade I have been hosting Americans who are seeking a custom travel experience in China. On this most recent visit, courtesy of the CNTA and Air China, I discovered even more places to take my fellow Americans.

Chengde China temple travel group

I was part of a group of just 15 interesting people in the travel business from cities across the U.S. We spent a week together primarily in Beijing and Chengde, along with other Hebei cities. I had never been to where The Great Wall actually begins at the Bohai Sea, called Laolongtou or “Old Dragon’s Head.” If you imagine the shape of the Wall as it sprawls across northern China as a giant dragon, then this would be its head.

China Great Wall Laolongtou

Nearby is another famous section of The Great Wall, Shanhaiguan, which translates to mountain-sea-pass. Built in 1381 during the Ming Dynasty, this was one of the most significant and heavily fortified passes in China. It is also known as Tianxia Diyi Guan or “First Pass Under Heaven.”

Shanhaiguan Great Wall China

I think it is fine for Westerners on a first trip to China to confine themselves to a Great Wall visit near Beijing, probably Mutianyu, but there are some amazing sections to be explored on subsequent visits! Read more about those in a future post.

Surprisingly, this was also my first visit to Chengde, despite its close proximity to Beijing, only about 3 hours away by bus on a very good highway. In a few years, given China’s propensity for building out infrastructure, there will also be both high-speed rail and an airport.

Chengde China mayor-secretary-Stephen Henson

I was fortunate to speak with the mayor and the party secretary of Chengde, as well as many other officials during our days (and many banquets and baijiu toasts) there. At the heart is the Chengde Mountain Resort, an expansive complex built during the 1700s as the Qing Dynasty’s Summer Palace. This UNESCO World Heritage Site offered a reprieve from the heat of Beijing.

China Chengde Mountain Resort

As if the Resort weren’t enough reason to visit Chengde, the Outlying Temples provide the clincher. Together, they are largest imperial palace-garden and temple complex in China. I will devote another post entirely to this impressive and historic site.

As we like to say, China is a big country, with a great deal to experience. The same can be said for the United States. I recently hosted Chinese travelers to places as diverse as Las Vegas and The Grand Canyon (40% of Chinese tourists to the U.S. visit a national park). Despite some of the challenges of language I write about here, travel embraces understanding and brings our cultures closer together. The Year of China-U.S. Tourism supports these efforts.

What’s upscale?

I always try to stay at the Westin Financial Street in Beijing, with a hotel tower and executive residence tower and the finest staff.

The Jiahe International Hotel in Chengde is a Chinese hotel offering a true 4-star experience (except for coffee).

What’s budget?

Visits to The Great Wall, the Chengde Mountain Resort and most other Chinese landmarks are quite reasonably priced to attract a mass audience.



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