Chinese visitors are the fastest-growing segment of US tourism — shopping for designer purses, taking pictures at historical monuments, touring college campuses in record numbers every year — and Massachusetts tour operators, hotels, and attractions are rolling out the red carpet for this lucrative tourist group.
The Charles Hotel in Cambridge just launched a website hosted in Hong Kong to reach Chinese visitors. Wrentham Village Premium Outlets is decorating its information center in red and gold crepe to mark the Chinese New Year next month. Trademark Tours has expanded its partnership with Harvard University — one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists — to create more workshops aimed at Chinese travelers, including topics such as “How to Find Happiness in America.”
But reaching out to this market is not a simple endeavor, tourism authorities say. The language barrier is significant, and Chinese visitors tend to travel in large groups, with buses bringing as many as 500 tourists an hour, sometimes overwhelming small attractions.
“We have to cultivate it carefully,” said Jackie Ennis, head of international marketing for the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, which recently held a workshop at the State House for businesses that are interested in attracting Chinese tourists.
China is now the third-biggest source of international tourists for Massachusetts, after the United Kingdom and Canada, with nearly 140,000 Chinese visiting the state in 2011.
Spending by Chinese visitors in Massachusetts has more than quadrupled to $285 million in 2011 from $60 million in 2007, according to the US Department of Commerce.
Five years ago, China was not even on the radar in the Massachusetts tourism industry. The boom began after a 2007 US-China travel agreement allowed tour operators to sell group leisure trips from China to the United States for the first time. Wait times for US visas have also decreased dramatically in recent years, while the Chinese middle class has grown — and started taking more vacations.
Nearly 1.5 million Chinese tourists arrived in the United States last year, a number that is expected to more than double by 2016.
Shopping is a big draw for Chinese visitors, who are attracted by the wide selection of consumer products and low prices. Macy’s accepts the Chinese credit card UnionPay. The Omni Parker House gives international travelers a free piece of luggage and partners with airlines to have that bag fly free to further encourage shoppers to buy, buy, buy. For Chinese New Year, Wrentham outlets will put up signs in Chinese and give away traditional Chinese candies.
“It’s our strongest growing market,” said Brian Chuan, director of tourism marketing for Macy’s.
New England boarding schools and colleges are also a major destination.
Celine Yu, a native of Nanjing, in Eastern China, lives in Sherborn. She said she is overwhelmed by the growing number of Chinese friends coming to the United States and asking to be picked up at the airport or taken shopping. Many have never been to the United States and choose to come to Boston on their first trip because they want their children to study here, she said.
As Ennis of the state tourism office puts it: New York has the Statue of Liberty, Arizona has the Grand Canyon, “We have Harvard.”
Trademark Tours, a Cambridge agency that arranges workshops and tours at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the number of Chinese travelers using its services doubled from 2011 to 2012. They now make up more than a third of its group travel business.
“For people from China who have a deep-rooted desire to pursue academia, Harvard is really a mecca of sorts,” said Trademark owner Daniel Andrew. “It’s a real pilgrimage.”
Chinese executives are also flocking to conferences and training sessions at Boston hotels, convention centers, and business schools, said Jolin Zhou of Sunshine Travel, a Boston tour operator that has seen the number Chinese customers soar 150 percent over the last 10 years.
The Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau is planning to host webinars with tips for businesses looking to attract Chinese travelers, such as offering tea and slippers and printing menus and signs in Chinese. But simply translating existing materials is often not enough because the language differences are so complex, said Evan Saunders, chief executive of Attract China, a Beijing marketing agency with an office in Boston.
For the Charles Hotel’s new Chinese website, for instance, general manager Alex Attia hired Attract China to create fresh content, even changing the slogan from “the smart place to stay” — a reference to the hotel’s proximity to Harvard — to “humanities and styles blend here.”
“If you translate ‘the smart place to stay,’ it means economic, the cheap place to stay,” said Attia. “We don’t want to go there.”
But businesses shouldn’t reach out to this rising tide of Asian visitors unless they are properly prepared, tourism industry insiders caution. Generally, Chinese tourists speak less English than European visitors do, requiring translation services. And they expect to be able to bargain for better deals on the accommodations.
“Even if a contract is signed, I’m afraid they’re going to come to the desk and try to negotiate a lower rate,” said Deb Catania, of Catania Hospitality Group, which owns three properties in Southeastern Massachusetts and on Cape Cod.
The Corning Museum of Glass in Western New York, a popular stop for bus tours headed from New York City to Niagara Falls, has to bring in extra parking lot security and staff to accommodate the 500 Chinese tourists an hour that can crowd into the museum on a busy summer day. The museum has also instructed its staff that Chinese visitors tend to need less personal space than Americans do.
“You have to be aware that they’re going to push up against you,” said Sally Berry, the glass museum’s tourism manager. “They’re not being rude. They’re just used to being tightly packed.”
Follow her on Twitter