On the windowsill of a souvenir and cigar shop on Eighth Street, refrigerator magnets of the Cuban flag, figures of curvy women carrying fruit baskets on top of their heads and a license plate which reads “I Cuba,” are found alongside a handwritten sign in Mandarin.
“Friends. Hi to all of you. Welcome to a Cuban Cigar Corp,” reads the yellow-colored paper next to another which also in Mandarin announces the store’s sales: “Promotions: Buy 2 Get 1 Free...”
The intention is to attract Asian tourists, the majority of which are Asian, who have been increasingly visiting Little Havana.
“It’s not bad. I can understand what it says,” commented Leon Jie, a tourist from Beijing, in English while he snapped a photo of the sign. “Good idea. They captured my attention.”
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The diversification of the tourist demographic within this emblematic Miami neighborhood, in which Cuban culture and the Spanish language are predominant, is changing the dynamic of the area in subtle ways.
Several business owners on Eight Street, who are already used to European and Latin American tourists, are adapting to this new influx of Asian visitors.
Souvenir shop employees have learned how to say words in Mandarin to communicate with clients. Some of them repeat the phrase “Ni Hao” as they lower their heads. A small tobacco shop, which is a popular tour stop for Asian visitors, displays a Chinese newspaper clipping about the business.
“Chinese tourists have become our best clients — they’re very loyal,” said Peter Bello, owner of Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co. His father, Pedro Bello, can usually be found sitting outside in front of the establishment smoking a cigar next to a wooden statue of an Indian chief.
Bello said many of the Chinese tourists are fascinated with Cuban cigars and buy them to smoke them and as gifts.
“For us, it’s become a season of high sales,” said Bello, while he offered a Cuban “colada” to a group of Chinese tourists who were there on a tour. “We’re preparing to close later because several groups visit us on a daily basis.”
Holly Xu watched in fascination as one of Bello’s employees turned and twisted tobacco leaves with his hands.
“It’s something different, I feel like I went somewhere else and like I’m not in the United States,” said Xu, who participated in a year-long educational program in a university in New York was visiting Miami to escape low temperatures.
Little Havana is merely a short stop in the South Florida itinerary of Asian tourists.
“Many of our clients stay in hotels close to the beach, others are interested in visiting shopping malls, others want to stay in Miami while they wait for a cruise and other groups are interested in visiting Cayo Hueso,” said Kevin Luong, owner of Cross Culture Tours, one of several companies in South Florida which offer tours in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Luong decided to bring these services to South Florida five years ago.
The first year he only had 100 clients but he didn’t give up.
“I’ve always been convinced that Miami could be an ideal tourist destination for Asians,” said Luong, who is from Vietnam.
The following year, Luong had about 1,500 clients, and the number has continued to increase since. In 2015, according to Luong, almost 10,000 people reserved their tours with Luong’s company in South Florida.
In Luong’s opinion, the increase is due in part to a change in the granting of visas between the United States and China. Since 201,3 both countries have issued tourist visas of up to 10 years as well as multiple entries. The former rules allowed for a one-year only tourism visa.
“This has allowed Chinese tourists to explore further than those cities, which are more well known in Asia, such as New York, Boston and Las Vegas,” said Luong, who has hired employees from the service industry and trained them to be tourist guides. “Now, I need more guides because the demand continues to grow.”
Luong and others in the industry think visitors will continue flocking to Miami and that the city will turn into a favored travel destination.
“We’re sure Miami is already on the map for Asian tourists and we’re preparing for growth,” said Rolando Aedo, Vice President of Marketing and Tourism in the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, an organization which gathers and analyzes tourism statistics in the greater Miami area and serves as a liaison between tourists and the hospitality industry.
“It’s not a surprise, it’s a project on which we’ve worked for about a decade and I’ve visited China several times in the last 10 years,” he added.
According to Aedo, during his first visit to China, he learned that the city of Miami was known in the Asian country for its Heat basketball players.
“Basketball in China is very popular and everybody knew Shaquille O’Neal and later on LeBron James, so they know us because of our team,” said Aedo.
Among the nationalities frequenting Miami the most, an Asian nation is yet to tally. That’s why it’s difficult to find precise statistics detailing how many Chinese tourists or tourists from other Asian countries have visited Miami.
For now, it’s observed only anecdotally thanks to tendencies witnessed by business owners.
“For example, we’ve had a greater demand for touristic pamphlets in Miami to include languages spoken in Asian countries than before,” said Aedo. “In Little Havana, we opened a visitor center last year and it’s surprising how much demand it has for information in Mandarin.”
Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar