Newborn babies being taken care of at a maternity center in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. The number of women from China taking part in "birth tourism" is on the rise. (Pan Bin / China Daily)
The sky begins to brighten as Nancy Chen makes her way to JFK airport to pick up a mother-to-be who has made the long flight from China for a temporary stay in New York — to give birth.
Chen, who owns the New York Maternity Center, has been in the birthing business for five years. But the past few months have proved to be her busiest time ever, as the number of pregnant women from China seeking her services soars.
The maternity center, located in a house on a quiet residential street in Bayside, a leafy neighborhood in New York's borough of Queens, will be filled from May through December, Chen said. It contains nine rooms, decorated with floral wall stickers and framed photos of smiling babies.
"The number of pregnant women coming from China will increase by more than 50 percent, compared with numbers in previous years," Chen said. "I have received phone calls and e-mails from China almost every day since February. This year is so busy that we don't even need to do any promotion in China."
Considered a time of hope and optimism, the Year of Dragon is producing a baby boom in China. Dragon babies, born between Jan 23, 2012, and Feb 9, 2013, carry their parents' hopes of becoming wealthy and wise and are boosting the business of birthing in New York.
Owners of two other maternity facilities in the city report similar increases.
Ada, owner of Anran Maternity Center in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, who asked that her surname not be published, said her business is flourishing this year. All eight rooms of her center are reserved into November, and people are still calling to ask about availability, she said.
A customer service representative at Family Care in New York declined to be interviewed but said the center had no rooms available during July and August. "More than 80 percent of customers are from the Chinese mainland," she added.
Traveling to the US to give birth has grown in popularity among expectant mothers from the Republic of Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Starting a decade ago, that trend began to include small numbers of wealthy pregnant women from the Chinese mainland.
The number of middle-class women from China taking part in "birth tourism" has been on the rise since 2007, when the US government started issuing B-2 non-immigrant visas to mainland Chinese, Chen said. By law, babies born in the US are automatically granted citizenship, even if they do not have relatives living in the country.
Birthing centers that used to cater primarily to Chinese immigrants have begun providing services to pregnant women from other countries. Before spreading east to New York, maternity centers like Chen's were mainly in West Coast cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, and most were owned and operated by immigrants from Taiwan.
Aimed at the Chinese mainland market, maternity centers in New York have a choice of packages for pregnant visitors' varying requirements. The cheapest is 90,000 yuan (about $14,000), while the most expensive package costs up to 800,000 yuan ($127,000).
"Our package services usually include four-month room rent, three daily meals and monthly car rental for prenatal examination," Chen said. "We also help with taking care of the baby so new moms can get more time to recover during the one-month postpartum period."
According to its website, Family Care also offers a range of options for expectant guests. The economy package includes a three-month stay in a five-square-meter room, while 800,000 yuan ($126,430) will secure an 80-square-meter apartment for four months.
Swan Di, an exchange scholar from China, gave birth to a boy recently at Chen's center, where she praised the level of care for herself and her newborn.
"I don't have any family here," Di told China Daily. "Living in the maternity center saved me a lot of trouble.
"My husband and I didn't plan to have a dragon baby, but it's still a thrilling coincidence," she said. "I've heard many friends speaking about having a dragon baby because the Year of the Dragon is a symbol of good luck."
Most Chinese women who come to the US to have their babies are financially well off, and they enjoy shopping during their stay, Chen said.
"Customers from China usually stay for four to six months," she said. "Without insurance, the total cost is around $35,000, including $10,000 in hospital expenses," though this varies according to each new mother's personal spending.
"Most of the Chinese customers in my center are businesswomen, so they are financially independent enough to afford the expense," Chen explained. "One of them once bought 15 Louis Vuitton handbags during her pregnancy, along with other items for her friends and relatives."
Some new moms, she said, continue to buy baby products from the US even after they return to China, regarding them as "safer and healthier".
Whether some US maternity centers will continue to profit from the influx of guests from the Chinese mainland is a matter of opinion.
"I think the business will remain a big hit even after the Year of the Dragon," said Ada. "The policy of limiting the number of mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong could be a big factor."
In 2011, about 44,000 mainland women had babies in Hong Kong, according to statistics from the government in the special administrative region. Due to scarce medical resources, Hong Kong has lowered its quota to 35,000 for this year. That could be cut to zero in 2013, according to a recent proposal by Leung Chun-ying, who will take office as Hong Kong's elected chief executive on July 1.
Chen, however, is focused on serving domestic clients over the long term even as she enjoys what is likely to be a brief boost in business from abroad.
"I know some of the centers make a big effort to bring in Chinese clients due to the attractive profit, and I did consider joining them," she said. "But I think the business upturn during the Year of the Dragon is temporary. Chances are, things will go back to normal after the Year of the Dragon. Plus, any change in citizenship policy won't affect domestic clients."
Chen was referring to a simmering political debate over "birthright citizenship", which is guaranteed in the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. Some lawmakers in Congress and in state legislatures have called for redefining the amendment's provision that automatically grants citizenship to anyone born in the US.