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How Boston is wooing Chinese tourists

Check out our blue skies! Our pitch to a new stream of visitors spotlights some unexpected city virtues.

Globe staff photo illustration

The city of Boston is a dense and busy place—a tangle of crowded old roads and highways, office towers, and deafening construction zones. To those who live here, it can feel snarled and frenzied; to those who visit from the suburbs or countryside, it is one of America’s quintessential urban destinations.

But that’s not what Jolin Zhou sees.

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Zhou, who moved from China to Amherst in 2007, then moving to Boston in 2009, and works at a company called Sunshine Travel Services, paints a very different picture of the city when describing it to her associates in Beijing and Shanghai. “You can enjoy nature here,” she says. “There’s fresh air, and a relaxing, healthful environment.”

This portrait of Boston as a bucolic health retreat might sound odd to most full-time residents. But it turns out to be central to selling the city to a group that is rapidly growing in size and economic importance all over the world: Chinese tourists.

Over the past several years, cities across America have entered into a strange and unprecedented competition to capture the interest of the world’s most lucrative and fastest-growing stream of travelers. With new wealth, new freedom, a smoother visa process, and the recent introduction of paid vacation days, Chinese tourists are flowing outward and spending huge amounts of money wherever they go. Last year they spent $102 billion globally, according to the UN World Tourism Organization—40 percent more than the year before, making them the world’s highest-spending tourist group for the first time ever. The US Department of Commerce counted about 1.5 million Chinese visitors to America in 2012—up by almost 200 percent since 2008—for a total “spend” of $8.8 billion. By 2017, the number of visitors pouring into the United States from China annually is expected to be more than 4 million.

Not wanting to be left behind, the local tourism industry is trying to figure out what the city and the state can do to capitalize on the steroidal growth of the Chinese market. So far, this project has involved Massport lobbying airline operators to introduce a direct flight from China to Logan Airport, and the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism running seminars for local hotel operators, retailers, and restaurateurs about the quirks of Chinese travelers—that they like warm soy milk at breakfast, for instance, and appreciate it when their rooms come with complimentary slippers and instant noodle cups in the minibar.

But at the heart of this campaign is the task of projecting a “Boston brand” that will stand out from America’s other cities and attractions, reflecting the city’s special features in a way that appeals specifically to the Chinese. In some ways, the portrait that’s emerging is predictable—given the Chinese interest in education, it makes sense that Harvard and MIT are the number one points of interest. But there are also less familiar elements, among them the idea that Boston, compared to smog-choked cities like Beijing, feels profoundly peaceful and healthy.

“Bostonians take all of this for granted, all the great parks and the greenery and the waterfront and the Harbor Islands and the blue sky,” said Pat Moscaritolo, the president of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, a nonprofit that works with Sunshine Travel to attract Chinese travelers and promote Boston to Chinese tour operators. He added: “It’s a huge contrast to how people in Beijing and Shanghai live their lives.”

The competition is stiff, as cities around the country scramble to create images of themselves deliberately tailored for the Chinese market. Together, they are conjuring a vision of America, and what it has to offer, that is tuned to the often unexpected ways that people from a different culture might see it.

“It’s that old adage,” said Moscaritolo. “‘You’re never a visitor in your own home city.’”

***

On a recent night in August, a group of about 15 Chinese journalists gathered in the backyard of the city-owned Parkman House, enjoying some wine before a “Taste of New England”-themed dinner. The next day, they would travel to Plymouth, and the day after that, Cape Cod. “Every one of these international visitors is a walking stimulus package!” exclaimed Moscaritolo, who helped plan the trip in hopes of inspiring the journalists to publish stories telling their readers to come to New England.

Right now, that is not what most Chinese tourists do when they visit America. Instead—as part of large, organized tour groups—they tend to fly into New York or California, which have direct flights connecting them to Beijing and Shanghai, and which attract by far the largest share of the Chinese tourists bound for the United States. From there, travelers take buses to see as many nearby sites as they can, often at a breakneck pace. Boston tends to be nothing more than a daylong interlude on the bus tour from New York, with visitors disembarking in Cambridge to see Harvard and MIT before continuing on their journeys.

A blanket of smog over Beijing.

Goh Chai Hin/AFP/File

A blanket of smog over Beijing.

Those sorts of visits brought in a little less than $300 million last year, according to a report commissioned by the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. But Bruce Bommarito, a longtime tourism consultant fluent in Mandarin who has been helping Boston navigate the Chinese market, says that number could be a lot higher if the city could capture the attention of people who have already been to the United States once, and want to return in order to get to know the country in a deeper way. That’s a “different type of tourist,” Bommarito said—and as the Chinese travel boom continues, it’s one that will become more and more common.

In order to get Chinese people to stay longer in Boston and New England—to stay in the city’s hotels and eat at its restaurants for multiple days and nights, then make short trips to other parts of the region—the first order of business, according to Moscaritolo, is convincing an airline to start running a direct flight from China to Logan Airport. People flying directly in and out would be more likely to spend their money here—especially on the luxury goods they plan to take home. In July, The Wall Street Journal reported that Hainan Airlines had sought approval from Chinese regulators to start a Boston route as early as next year.

It’s not just Boston that wants their business, of course: Across the country, a map is emerging of city-specific pitches engineered to the enthusiasms and preferences of the imagined Chinese tourist. In Chicago, emphasis is placed on Michael Jordan and Derrick Rose—massive stars in China, where basketball is popular—as well as the University of Chicago’s record of producing Nobel Prize winners. Seattle uses a popular Chinese romantic comedy that was set there, “Beijing Meets Seattle,” as a marketing hook.

“Houston has worked the market very hard from a Jeremy Lin—Yao Ming angle,” said
Bommarito. He added: “Hawaii does very well because of its proximity. Florida is starting to grow, particularly Orlando and Miami, because the Chinese like cruise ships and they like the mouse.” Other cities, meanwhile, “are still in the process of finding their story to tell, or are even still in the process to understand that they need one,” according to Wolfgang Georg Arlt, a professor of tourism in Germany and founder of a research firm that publishes reports on trends in Chinese tourism.

In Boston, the trick has been figuring out what the city can offer besides a chance to visit the educational mecca of Cambridge—a big draw, but not enough to convince tourists to stay here more than a day or two. This challenge has required those involved in the Boston tourism industry to put themselves in the minds of the people they’re trying to pull in. “What you need to do is look at the reasons why they travel, what they’re looking for when they come to America,” Moscaritolo said.

Some things are obvious. It’s well known, for instance, that Chinese travelers love to shop, because the steep sales tax in China makes luxury goods so much more expensive there. But others are more surprising: American history, it turns out, is of great interest, which makes Boston’s unique role in it a major selling point. “One point I try to market is that Boston is one of the oldest cities in America,” said Zhou, adding that many Chinese people don’t realize that historical events they learned about in school, like the landing of the Mayflower, took place near Boston. Part of Zhou’s pitch, for that reason, is that “Boston is the birthplace of liberty and freedom.”

Then there’s the nature angle, which positions Boston as a place with fresh air and a gateway to New England, where visitors can enjoy the rolling hills and foliage, go whale-watching, eat fresh lobster, and hike through national parks. That Boston offers such easy access to nature appeals to Chinese tourists looking for respite from the atmosphere back home: “If you consider how polluted, how thick, the air in Beijing and Shanghai is, you will understand this,” said Yang Xiao, a reporter for Southern People Weekly, who arrived in Boston on a Nieman Fellowship just a month ago. Since then Xiao has visited Walden Pond, and is planning a trip to Maine; even being here for a little while, he said, “changes the air in your lungs.”

The outdoors is already part of Chinese travel habits: Domestically, tourists spend occasional weekends relaxing in small farm towns, and if they have more vacation time, they go to Tibet, the Yunnan province, or Thailand. “There’s a market in China with people going to different places to enjoy nature,” said Zhou, “but they don’t know yet that Boston and New England [have] that. That’s the message we want to send out.”

In light of China’s growing concerns about pollution, Boston looks practically like a spa destination, a city defined by good health. Adding to this impression are its world-class hospitals—where, according to Zhou, some Chinese visitors have gone for “general body checks” they believed would be far superior to what they could get back home. “Sometimes Chinese people say if you cannot get treated in Boston, you cannot get treated anywhere else, because Boston has the most advanced hospitals in the world,” Zhou said.

***

Could Boston, with its traffic jams and barely swimmable Charles River, really develop a reputation in China as a place to go for curative greenery and relaxation? According to Georg Arlt, founder of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, or COTRI, it’s more likely than it might seem to city residents—partly because we just don’t understand how ungreen it is elsewhere. “The combination of city and nature is for Chinese very attractive,” Georg Arlt said in an e-mail. “Probably you even can see and hear birds in Boston, something unthinkable in Chinese cities.”

As the number of Chinese tourists pouring out into the world continues to grow, he went on, we will start to see their interests and preferences reflected more and more in the places they’re visiting. Next year, he said, COTRI will publish a book about how cities and countries around the world are changing in response to the growing influx of Chinese visitors.

The nature of these pitches demonstrates that the appeal of America isn’t always what Americans assume it is. In some ways, we’re an older economy now than China, and visitors from a land of towering apartment buildings and levitating trains will be less surprised by our gleaming skyscrapers than they are charmed by our old-fashioned parks, our bodies of water, and the height restrictions in our neighborhoods.

“Sometimes we get caught up in the notion of bigness in America, whether it’s big buildings or big cities or big airports, and we think that if it’s not huge and big it’s not good,” Moscaritolo said. But when he talks to Chinese visitors about Boston, he said, “every one of them gets animated by the concept of open space, the streetscape, and looking up and being able to see the sky.”

From that perspective, Bostonians have more to gain from Chinese tourists—and from our campaign to woo them—than just taxes on luxury goods. By looking at our home through outsiders’ eyes, we notice what might move someone to travel halfway around the world to see it.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail leon.neyfakh@globe.com.

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, an earlier version of this story about Chinese tourism incorrectly described travel consultant Jolin Zhou’s arrival in America. She moved from China to Amherst in 2007, and to Boston in 2009.

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