BEIJING — While stuck in traffic on the Beijing-Shanghai Expressway last year, Yin Ximin decided he'd been smart to buy a recreational vehicle.
"Women were so desperate they had their friends or family shield them so they could urinate on the side of the road," said Yin, 48, who owns an advertising firm in Beijing. "An RV makes long trips less painful. We can lounge around, have drinks, listen to music — and use the bathroom."
Back in Beijing, Yin uses his 19-foot motor home from manufacturer Shandong Dream Trip RV to fetch clients from the airport and schmooze on the way back into the increasingly gridlocked city, where the number of registered cars has more than tripled since 2000.
As more Chinese embrace automobile culture, foreign RV makers are expanding in China. Researcher 21RV.com estimates the number of motor homes in China will surge from about 9,000 to 800,000 in the 10 years to 2022. The U.S. has some 9.6 million RVs on its roads, according to 21RV.
Winnebago Industries, based in Forest City, Iowa, began working in 2011 with dealers in Beijing and several other cities, selling models ranging from 200,000 yuan ($33,000) to 2 million yuan ($327,000). Thor Industries, the Elkhart, Ind.-based owner of the Airstream brand, started selling its distinctive silver camping trailers from a Beijing dealership in March.
"Foreign RV brands are still little-known to Chinese consumers," sales manager Zhang Minrui said by phone from a Winnebago dealership in Dalian. He declined to give sales figures, though he said "demand will no doubt continue to expand in coming years as more people take self-drive vacations."
Germany's Dethleffs started selling imported RVs and caravan trailers this year from showrooms in several Chinese cities. The RVs, which can sleep six, run an average of 1.5 million yuan ($245,000), said Surana Chen, president of its Chinese operations.
"High-end RVs are new symbols of status and success, like yachts and private jets," said Chen. "Demand for RVs for business use has been way beyond our expectations."
Great Wall Motor Co., China's biggest SUV maker, and pick-up truck maker Xinkai Automobile Group, also have started making motor homes and touring coaches that can be substantially cheaper than the imports. Great Wall's most expensive model costs 508,000 yuan, according to auto website Cheshi.com.
Beijing Centech Investment Management Co., says it sold about 300 luxury motor homes made by domestic manufacturer Zhongtian last year. The vehicles have been rented by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, former Houston Rocket Yao Ming and tennis player Roger Federer.
One potential brake on sales is driving restrictions. In some provinces, a bus-driver's license — among the toughest permits to get — is required to pilot an RV, while in others a standard passenger-car license is sufficient, according to Beijing Centech. And in some areas, it's illegal to tow a camping caravan trailer, the RV dealer said.
A further limiting factor is a lack of campgrounds. The country has just 150 designated areas for camping, versus 16,500 in the U.S., according to 21RV. The government aims to change that. A plan issued this year promises more campgrounds and related infrastructure to promote domestic travel, though detailed figures haven't been disclosed.
RV sales are benefiting as Chinese spend more on vacations and leisure. The country overtook Germany and the U.S. to become the world's biggest source of tourists last year, according to the China Tourism Academy.
"My husband and I spend more than 100 days a year traveling for fun, and an RV can make our trips more relaxing," said Paula Wang, 52, who runs a catering business in Shanghai. "I love taking pictures wherever we go. With an RV, we can take our time looking for the best shots without having to rush to reach the next hotel."
The worsening traffic in China's major cities is adding to the appeal of RVs. Beijing, deemed the city with the world's most onerous commutes by IBM in 2010, has seen car registrations soar to 5.2 million last year from 1.5 million in 2000.
Michael Gu decided to buy an RV to discuss business while picking up or dropping off guests after wasting hours stuck in crawling traffic.
"I thought it would be much easier to hold meetings and do business while my driver fights through the jams," said Gu, 48, who runs an investment firm. "Traffic in Beijing is just horrible."