Bourbon, beef jerky, and Gibson guitars share the dubious honor of all being quintessential American goods hit by Chinese tariffs. But the trillion-dollar U.S. travel industry – and by extension, the nation’s museums and cultural institutions central to its appeal – is quickly becoming an unexpected casualty as well.
Although U.S. tourism enjoyed a record year in 2018 with 78.6 million visitors, the number of visitors from China fell 5.7 percent following years of double-digit growth. It’s a trend that should continue in the wake of Beijing’s travel warnings and the increased cost of traveling to America as the yuan further weakens against the dollar. And while China may only represent three percent of the nation’s 80 million annual visitors, those same visitors spend 50 percent more than their international counterparts, and they comprise an estimated 12 percent of overall tourist spending in the U.S.
As such, Chinese money spent on vacations in America must be considered an export, and Beijing’s recent missives questioning the safety of Chinese travelers in America and new difficulties for Chinese students obtaining visas should be seen as initial steps toward hampering the $1.3 trillion industry. With 66 percent of travelers to the U.S. participating in cultural activities such as visiting museums, fewer tourists from China represents a significant blow to America’s cultural institutions.
This, unfortunately, comes at a time when Chinese interest in museum-going has been booming. Domestic visits to museums neared the one-billion mark in 2018, and China’s leading four museums experienced an average growth rate of 10.7 percent during that year. That has led museum trips to become an essential part of any Chinese international holiday trip — to America or elsewhere. For example, Chinese visitors to MoMA grew 200% between 2012 and 2018, and one in three Chinese tourists to New York toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In short, museums are sure to lose out because of this trade war.
To offset the effects of the Donald Trump vs. Xi Jinping standoff, museums must deepen their engagement with Chinese audiences — a strategy that must occur both domestically and in mainland China.
For the two-to-three million Chinese who will visit America in the coming year, museums must get China-smart in everything from developing Chinese-friendly social media channels to catering parts of the museum experience to Chinese tastes. Meanwhile, American museums should strive to develop their brands and draw revenue from a population that is increasingly culturally engaged.
The most straightforward and traditional method is to send exhibitions to China. London’s Tate Modern set its attendance record when it sent an exhibition from its collection to Shanghai’s Pudong Museum of Art (PMoA) in 2018 that attracted over 615,000 visitors in 14 weeks. A further option is for Western museums to forge strategic partnerships with Chinese museums like the Tate’s or LACMA’s partnership with the Yuz Museum in Shanghai.
Another important way American museums can recoup potential revenue loss is by following Chinese museums’ lead in radically rethinking gift shops, both online and off. This can be done by monetizing their IP and releasing wenchuang merchandise inspired by culture and history. In fact, some Western cultural institutions have already taken the lead in creating quirky and desirable cultural products. The British Museum’s Tmall shop has enjoyed spectacular success since its 2018 launch, and the Met will issue a range of products over the coming year via its partnership with product licensing experts Alfilo Brands.
Although the trade war is an uncontrollable force upon the U.S. tourism industry, for American museums, there is a range of factors that are within their control. Strong branding and intelligent strategy on Chinese social media and e-commerce platforms can prove a short-term boon and will increase the likelihood that Chinese audiences will choose those respective institutions if and when they visit America.