A new era in the U.S. travel industry was inaugurated on June 17 when a group of 300 leisure travelers from China landed in Washington, led by the head of the Asian country’s national tourism authority.

Under a new bilateral agreement signed in December and enacted in time for the summer peak season, Chinese travel agencies can partner with American tour operators to bring group leisure travelers to the U.S., and destinations here can now market tour packages in China.

In the past, Chinese travelers who obtained visas were allowed to enter the U.S. as individuals, but groups were only permitted for educational or business purposes.

The new agreement, travel industry and government officials project, will set off an unprecedented wave of Chinese travelers visiting the U.S., and states like Georgia are looking to attract a share of the economic benefit from the expected tourist flood.

Chinese tourists spend an average of more than $6,000 during visits to the U.S., a ratio greater than visitors from any other country besides Saudi Arabia, Isabel Hill, the agreement’s lead negotiator, said at a recent forum hosted by the World Trade Center Atlanta to explore how Georgia can welcome Chinese visitors.

Ms. Hill, deputy director of the Commerce Department’s Office of Travel and Tourism Officials, said the office projects the number of Chinese visitors will climb to 579,000 by 2011, an increase of 81 percent over 2006. Last year, almost two-thirds of Chinese visitors came to the U.S. for primarily business purposes, while less than 10 percent came for leisure.

With the memorandum in place, that balance could shift significantly to the benefit of the U.S. and other hot travel markets. The U.N. World Tourism Organization estimates that China will send out 100 million tourists annually by 2020, making it the largest outbound market in the world.

But even as the 10th most visited state in the U.S., Georgia can’t hope to monopolize the time of international travelers, who spend an average of 16.2 days in the U.S., Kevin Langston, Georgia’s assistant commissioner for tourism, told GlobalAtlanta.

“As much as we’d like to have them here for 16.2 days, (Chinese tourists) are looking for a bigger experience,” Mr. Langston said at World Trade Center forum.

In light of this fact, Georgia has teamed up with other Southern states to market the whole region to Chinese travel agents.

Mr. Langston is a board member of Travel South USA, the primary tourism marketing instrument for the 12-state region. In a recent meeting, its board voted to set up a joint booth at this year’s China International Travel Mart in Shanghai Nov. 20-23.

CITM, as it’s commonly called, is a yearly travel expo alternately hosted in Shanghai and Kunming, the capital city of southwestern China’s tourism-rich Yunnan province.

Mr. Langston, along with Brandon Barnes of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, attended last year’s CITM, where the timing was “perfect” for Georgia’s marketing efforts, Mr. Langston said.

Because Chinese travel agents knew the agreement was coming, there were “people standing 10-deep at the booth trying to get information,” he said.

Georgia won’t have its own booth in Shanghai, but even with all the regional collaboration, the state aims to distinguish itself as the Chinese tourist gateway to the Southeast.

The Delta Air Lines Inc. flight from Atlanta to Shanghai that launched in March—the only nonstop link from the region to China—is key to that achieving that goal.

Last October in Charlotte, N.C., Mr. Langston gathered with tourism officials from all 50 states to market Georgia to tourism authorities from Chinese provincial governments.

Within a few months, Mr. Langston hopes to hire a permanent Chinese-speaking staff member. In the meantime, the tourism department has recruited two Chinese interns from the cities of Hong Kong and Shenzhen who are working with the state’s Chinese-language marketing materials.

Ms. Hill, a native of South Carolina, said the Southeast has a lot to offer Chinese tourists and that the region should work together to “capture the value” of the agreement.

“People often think you’re competing in an emerging market like this, but you’re (really) cooperating,” she said.

Perhaps the focus on leisure tourism will be an easier feat for Georgia than states that have been less overt in courting China on the business side.

The state has made it a strategic goal to lure Chinese trade and investment. Three Chinese manufacturers have agreed to build factories here, and Gov. Sonny Perdue led a business mission to Shanghai and Beijing in conjunction with the launch of the Delta flight in April.

During that trip, Mr. Perdue opened a trade and tourism office in Beijing, Georgia’s 11th overseas office.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...