Chinese tourists' spending in the U.S. takes off

But Chinese tourists tend not to shop for themselves. Most of their purchases — usually high-end clothes and accessories featured in American movies and magazines — are gifts for friends and family.

Chinese tourists in the U.S. target brands such as Coach, Ugg, Polo, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Neiman Marcus and L'Occitane. Steep Chinese taxes make such brands two to three times more expensive in China, said Helen Koo, president of America Asia tours in Monterey Park.

"Many tourists feel that the savings more than pay for the entire trip," she said.

Many Chinese visitors also stock up on vitamins in the U.S. because they are suspicious of the quality of supplements sold in China.

To stretch their travel budgets, Chinese tourists prefer shopping at outlet malls.

"We see many visitors head to the luggage store, get a suitcase and then it's, 'OK, we are going to fill the bag,'" said Michele Rothstein, a senior vice president at Simon Property Group, one of the country's largest operators of regional and outlet malls. "The Chinese are definitely seen as speed shoppers."

During a recent visit to the U.S., Ding Sheng, a tourist from Guangzhou, China, said he took a tour to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and was planning to see the casinos of Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. But he said a shopping outing to the Cabazon outlet mall was the highlight of the trip.

"These are gifts for my friends," he said as he shopped for Ugg shoes, priced at $149 a pair.

Although Chinese tourists spend heavily on gifts and souvenirs, the travelers typically skimp on food and lodging, tour guides say.

For example, the tour group that chartered a bus to the Desert Hills Premium Outlets stayed about 75 miles away at an economy hotel in the city of Industry and ate at Chinese buffet restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.

"Even when they stay at a cheap hotel, they spend a lot on shopping," said Nathan Xue, a tour guide for TPI America.

In fact, the Chinese travelers spent so much during the visit to the outlet mall that it took Xue an extra hour after his recent tour bus was scheduled to leave to pull the Chinese tourists away from the stores.

And when the shoppers finally returned to the bus, it took another 20 minutes for them to stuff their bulging bags of clothes, shoes and luggage into the bus' cargo hold.

hugo.martin@latimes.com