Freedom and Community at the Same Time
Pull into a KOA (Kampgrounds of America) and you’ll find tremendous variety among recreational vehicles (RVs) parked there. Some are full on motor homes with big screen TVs and leather sofas. Others are utilitarian pop-up trailers for sleeping and tossing some cooking necessities into a small fridge. The ability to right-size and customize your temporary home makes RVs appealing and accessible to a wide range of customers on different budgets, whether they be renters for summer camping or retirees touring the country at a leisurely pace.
Generation X (the under 55 crowd) is taking over as the largest group of RV buyers among the 9 million or so Americans who own an RV. We don’t own an RV, but on our first RV family road trip this summer, we found bustling sites with bingo and kids on hover boards, sites with quiet s’more-makers and star-gazers, to downright serene sites on mountain tops where retirees gathered to train their miniature dogs on obstacle courses. The one thing they all had in common was respect for personal space combined with a sense of community. Hand waves are obligatory and people offered such genuine smiles that I thought I was supposed to know them already from somewhere.
RV Capital of the World
Elkhart County, Indiana is home to more RV production than anywhere else in the country – a full 80 percent of American-made RVs come out of Northern Indiana. The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) is bullish about the industry’s growth prospects. RV sales and rentals benefit not only the vehicle manufacturers and dealers, but also the hundreds of specialty component suppliers throughout the United States. The RV boom supports the tourism industry more generally (another competitive “export” of the United States) with positive indirect impacts on the more than 45,000 Americans working on campgrounds and elsewhere in the travel and tourism services sector. Overall, the RV industry estimates it has makes a $50 billion contribution through direct, indirect, and induced economic impact on the U.S. economy.
A New Frontier
Today, less than 10 percent of U.S. RV production is exported. Historically, and for the near term, 90 percent of those exports go north across the land border to Canada. But the U.S. International Trade Administration (ITA) thinks the camping grounds are fertile in some surprising new markets including China, the United Arab Emirates where demand is strong for high-end RVs, and Korea and Thailand, where camping is already very popular and being used to attract tourism from neighboring Asian countries.
Middle class incomes are rising in these and other emerging markets, and tourists are increasingly attracted to the American “RV lifestyle,” which in many of these countries is seen as a symbol of luxury and status. The ITA forecasts 2018 exports of $1.4 billion with a five percent annual growth rate.
Paving the Road for Export Success
To pave the way for more exports of American-made RVs, the ITA is working to ensure other governments adopt favorable vehicle standards and road use and licensing regulations. Removal or reduction of import duties and reduction of high consumption taxes would make pricing of U.S. RVs more competitive in new markets. Redundant testing and certification requirements can also pose a barrier to U.S. exports if not addressed in trade policy discussions.
ITA brings foreign buyers to national RV trade shows to introduce them to U.S. vehicle manufacturers and component suppliers. Finding buyers, however, isn’t enough to grow potential exports. The industry and U.S. government are also working to stimulate investments at national parks and private resorts in new markets to build out campsite infrastructure including power, water, and sanitation hook-ups and expand rural roadways and parking to accommodate RVs.
China’s Market Might Get Cooking
China’s current Five-Year Plan for economic growth sets a goal of creating 1,000 RV campgrounds by 2020 to both “promote consumer spending on tourism and leisure activities” (and to support American competitors in the Chinese automotive industry).
Shanghai opened its first campground for RVs in October 2014 on Chongming Island and ITA reports that new campgrounds are springing up on a near monthly basis all throughout China. China’s city dwellers are catching on. RV camping is a great way to escape the congestion and smog of China’s cities while embracing the American coolness factor.
RVs Support American Travel and Tourism Exports Too
According to the US Travel Association, international travelers spent $153.7 billion in the United States in 2016, directly supporting nearly 8.6 million U.S. jobs. On average, every $1 million in sales of travel goods and services directly generates nine jobs for the industry, which is adding new jobs at a faster rate (16.6 percent) than the rest of the economy (10.3 percent).
While RV manufacturers are chasing sales in China, the U.S. RV rental market is busy attracting Chinese tourists who want to see as much of the United States as possible on their holidays and do it American-style.
The opportunity is not lost on El Monte RV in Los Angeles, a company that caters to its growing Chinese clientele by offering instructional videos in Chinese, vehicles outfitted with rice cookers, and directions to conveniences like Chinese supermarket chains.
Overall, China is the #1 market for U.S. tourism exports (tourism sales in the United States are counted as a services export). The National Travel and Tourism Office calculates that Chinese visitors inject more than $95 million a day into the U.S. economy and that travel and tourism exports account for 65 percent of all U.S. services exports to China. Seems that great American road trip is increasingly a two-way road.
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Andrea Durkin is the Editor-in-Chief of TradeVistas and Founder of Sparkplug, LLC. Ms. Durkin previously served as a U.S. Government trade negotiator and has proudly taught international trade policy and negotiations for the last fourteen years as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program.