MUKILTEO — The young tour guide at Paine Field’s Future of Flight Aviation Center had no trouble conversing with the Boeing-sponsored contingent of executives from Beijing in the morning and more than a dozen Taiwanese political leaders in the afternoon.
Both delegations were pleasantly surprised to get the presentations in their own language.
They also had the same question of their amiable guide: What are you doing here?
Zhang Xinyue, 20, a student at Peking University, is one of two paid interns from China this summer at the Future of Flight, which hopes to capitalize on the burgeoning Asian tourism market.
Eventually, China will grant the United States “approved destination status,” making it easier to advertise and attract tourists to America, said Sandy Ward, the center’s marketing director. Even with those restrictions, China lands in the top five countries of visitors to the aviation center.
“We know it’s an emerging market,” Ward said. “We know it’s inevitable. When it does happen, we want to be ready.”
There have been 600 visitors from mainland China since April, but the number of Chinese-speaking visitors is much greater with tourists from other Chinese-speaking countries and immigrants to the U.S. and Canada.
Paid admission is on the rise at the two-year-old center. There were 33,000 visitors in July, up nearly 10,000 from the same time last year and more than 10 percent of those were from foreign countries. July’s visitors came from 72 different countries. Since April, when the center acquired software to track ZIP codes of its visitors, there have been tourists from 121 countries.
Between January and July 31, there were 101,000 paying customers, up from 85,000 at the same stretch a year ago.
The center hired Zhang and Zhu Jie, 21, a senior at Beijing International Studies University, for July, August and early September, its heaviest tourism months.
It wants to continue hiring interns from foreign countries, such as China, Japan and Korea, to bridge cultures and gain a solid foothold among foreign tour operators who want their clients to be able to understand what they are seeing.
International tourists have found the Future of Flight from such far-flung destinations as the Falkland Islands, Greenland and Papua and New Guinea, but most come from Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Asian and Pacific countries, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Zhu, in fact, can talk to visitors in English, Chinese and French.
Both are exceptionally bright. Zhu can describe the prose of William Shakespeare, William Blake and William Wordsworth; Zhang studied last summer at Yale University.
Yet the chance to work in America and interact with museum visitors provides valuable insight and practical education.
For that opportunity, Zhang and Zhu are extremely thankful to officials in China who let them go and America who took them in. It is, they said, a rare opportunity to understand the culture from the inside and foster understanding in both countries.
Zhang encounters dozens of people with different accents each day.
“They opened the door for Chinese students to experience the real American life,” Zhang said. “We are better prepared for the future.”
“I really cherish this chance,” Zhu said.
Both have had to master English computer systems and different currencies, including the Canadian exchange rate. Why, they wonder, don’t U.S. pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters have numbers denoting the denominations? Why is the dime smaller than the nickel but worth more? Why are all U.S. bills green, making them harder to differentiate?
While both feel enormously fortunate to be here, they also describe a sense of responsibility to represent their country well.
Both envision they will be working to help international tourists visiting mainland China next year during the 2008 summer Olympics and each sees it as a chance to bring the world a little closer.
Ward believes that’s already happening.
“It has gone remarkably well,” she said. “Everybody loves these girls. We are learning so much about Chinese culture and they are learning so much about our culture.”
Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.