Chinese Travel Blogger Likes Chicago But Loves MilwaukeeThursday, July 16, 2015
One of the most influential travel bloggers in China wrapped up a Chicago visit Wednesday with many nice things to say about what he called a "city of steel."
But after a whirlwind three days of ballgames, festivals, museums and tours, Jun Song said that, all things considered, he'd rather be in Milwaukee.
Song, 47, is on a sponsored 10-day Great Lakes tour to promote foreign tourism. With 55 million blog visitors, his posts could have a big impact among Chinese travelers, the fastest-growing segment of international travelers to the U.S.
Song's road trip started July 11 in Milwaukee. He enjoyed tours of the Miller Brewery and the Harley-Davidson museum, but mostly liked hanging out on the lakefront.
He arrived in Chicago on Sunday, in time to catch the finale of the Cubs-Sox crosstown series at Wrigley Field. Since then, he has taken in everything from deep-dish pizza to the city's skyline, summing up his first visit to Chicago in two words.
"So big," said Song, a Beijing resident.
The tour, which will also take Song through Michigan and Ohio before ending in Indianapolis July 19, is one of five summer road trips funded by Brand USA, a public-private partnership promoting international travel to the U.S. This summer, social media influencers from India, Brazil and France will also tour the U.S., filing reports to their massive followings abroad.
This is the second year for the program, which last year generated nearly 2.6 billion impressions on Facebook alone, according to Talia Salem, who heads up the effort for Brand USA.
"Bringing in influencers and giving them the tools to tell the American story to their audiences is a lot more authentic," Salem said. "They're free to say what they want. That's a risk that we take ... but we feel that the rewards outweigh the risk."
Song blogs under the name dubilaosong, which roughly translated means "one-armed," a reference to his damaged left arm, which he said was injured in a 1999 fireworks explosion in Beijing. His site includes many photos of his travels, hoping to capture local culture for his Chinese followers.
He reflected on the ups and downs of his Chicago visit over croissants and Chinese cigarettes at an outdoor table at the Chicago French Market on North Clinton Street on Wednesday, accompanied by two thirty-something tour guides and a translator brought in for the breakfast chat.
Highlights of his visit included the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park, which features a video loop of Chicago faces on 50-foot towers. He also liked the interactive Robot Revolution exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.
He was impressed with the atmosphere of Wrigley Field but found the game itself less than scintillating. Post-game revelry at Wrigleyville bars, however, was a home run for Song, who loved the festive energy.
A visit to Lou Malnati's for authentic Chicago deep-dish pizza was also among his disappointments. Song said there was too much cheese and the crust was a little hard. He said he much preferred Pizza Hut of China. The best American pizza he has sampled to date was at a Costco in Seattle.
"Costco pizza I like," Song said, enthusiastically bypassing his translator.
He had better things to say about Chicago hot dogs, which he tried during a visit to Taste of Chicago, flashing an eager thumbs up in approval.
Chinese tourism to Chicago was up 4 percent last year to 133,000 visitors. That is significantly behind the 21 percent growth rate across the U.S.
Overall, Chicago dropped to 10th among U.S. cities for international tourism last year, with 1.3 million visitors, a 5 percent decline, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office.
Song said Chicago is not really on the radar for most Chinese people, who only know the city as the home of the Bulls.
This year, the city extended its new "Chicago Epic" tourism campaign to China with a $780,000 digital campaign funded by the Illinois Office of Tourism and Brand USA. The full schedule aired before the state budget stalemate forced Choose Chicago to curtail the campaign last month. This week, Choose Chicago halted all international travel, further hampering efforts to sell the city to foreign tourists.
Choose Chicago didn't fund his stop in Chicago but coordinated the itinerary.
While his blog will convey his preferences, Song said it may still encourage more Chinese tourists to visit Chicago — if only as a stop on the way to Milwaukee.