When Chinese tourists discovered Boston, it was practically love at first sight. The feeling was mutual. The city’s tourism industry had found itself a lucrative new market. When direct flights began between Boston and Beijing in 2014, the relationship truly took off.
One analysis found that from 2007 to 2017, the number of Chinese tourists here skyrocketed from 3,100 to over 300,000, a jaw-dropping 870 percent increase.
Another study concluded that between 2013 and 2018 the number of Chinese visitors grew by 163 percent. The Chinese market makes up Boston’s largest group of overseas travelers. More importantly, they’re the biggest spenders, dropping $616 million into the local economy in 2018.
So with borders shut to Chinese travelers, flights canceled, and a pandemic spreading, what happens to the city’s tourism industry when its most abundant and affluent visitors are no longer allowed in the country?
Travel officials are putting on a brave face and hoping for the best.
“All I can tell you is that, along with the US Travel Association, we are being cautiously optimistic,” said David O’Donnell, director of strategic communications for the Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re hopeful there will be a rebound in travel and a continuation of the travel forecast that already exists for most of 2020.”
What could salvage at least part of the city’s tourism numbers this year is the timing of the outbreak. The first quarter of the year is the slowest for Boston. According to O’Donnell, tourists begin arriving en masse after Patriots Day and continue streaming into the city until early November. If the virus is brought under control by summer, the city could get through the year without a catastrophic hit to its tourism economy.
Most travel professionals aren’t ready to predict what will happen to the industry this year, saying it’s too early to call and there are too many unknowns. The closest example to coronavirus, which has so far killed more than 700 people and infected 34,000, was the SARS outbreak in 2003. But O’Donnell points out that in 2003, the number of Chinese tourists traveling to Boston was relatively low. Until 2016, the city’s biggest overseas market was Great Britain.
Using an equation based on SARS losses, along with the hefty increase in Chinese tourism to the United States, the group Tourism Economics estimates that Chinese visitation to the US will be down 28 percent in 2020. It speculated that there will be a cumulative $10.3 billion loss in Chinese visitor spending here as a result of the coronavirus. More than half of those losses will be experienced in 2020.
If coronavirus plays out in a similar fashion to SARS, Chinese tourism to the United States will rebound in 2021, but won’t fully recover until 2025. Gloria Guevara, president of the World Travel & Tourism Council, offered a slightly more optimistic outlook. She said the average rebound time from a major viral epidemic is less than two years. But with the virus jumping borders quickly and no vaccine on the immediate horizon, it is difficult to draw comparisons.
Some believe Boston’s tourist trade may make it through the pandemic better than cities such as New York and Los Angeles. While Chinese visitors are Boston’s biggest market, cities such as Riverside, Calif., Los Angeles, Seattle, Detroit, and San Francisco had higher numbers of Chinese tourists in 2018. New York and Los Angeles have the highest number of hotel stays from Chinese guests.
“Boston is certainly exposed to the declines from China but not to the same extent as other destinations,” said Adam Sacks of Tourism Economics. “So this will certainly represent a challenge, but not a sea change in Boston tourism activity.”
The staying power of Chinese tourism in Boston was tested in 2018 (the most recent year for which data is available), as it survived a trade war, more restrictive visa requirements for inbound Chinese visitors, a strong dollar, and Chinese government safety warnings about travel to the United States. Overall, Chinese tourism to the United States was down by 5.6 percent in 2018, according to the US Travel Association. But in Boston, Chinese tourism was up by 3.6 percent. That number doesn’t represent a huge amount of growth, but it does show that Boston is less susceptible to whims and trends.
“Boston’s strong market share, if positioned well, should register gains once pent-up demand grows,” said Scott Johnson, president of Travel Market Insights, a company that tracks travel trends.
Tourism from China to Boston began to accelerate when Hainan Airlines added direct flights from mainland China to Boston in 2014. Cathay Pacific added a direct route from Hong Kong to Boston two years later. Other airlines, such as Sichuan Airlines, have expressed interest in starting nonstop flights between Boston and China.
With the Chinese tourism market all but shut down, local hotels weren’t looking to share information with the Globe on how coronavirus is affecting business. The reaction among hotels ranged from tight-lipped to dead silent. Both Encore Boston and the Four Seasons One Dalton described the precautions that are being taken to keep guests safe. Other hotels simply declined to comment on the impact or didn’t respond.
“We haven’t experienced any fluctuations, but I assure you that we are watching the situation closely,” said Bernardo Gubert, general manager of the Cambria Hotel Boston in South Boston.
O’Donnell of the visitors bureau said that hotels with group bookings from China are beginning to see cancellations. As spring and summer approach, it’s more than likely that those numbers will rise.
Over the past three years, inbound tourism from all countries to the United States has gone sluggish, which industry analysts have attributed to everything from President Trump’s travel ban to gun violence to a strong dollar. But given that Chinese tourists spent $36.4 billion in the United States in 2018, coronavirus could be the most devastating blow of them all.
“The tourism industry is already facing a number of headwinds, including ongoing uncertainty over the UK’s Brexit withdrawal and intensifying geopolitical tensions between a number of powerful nations," said Ben Cordwell, a travel and tourism analyst at GlobalData, a data and analytics company. "These factors, combined with the coronavirus outbreak, could mean a tough year lies ahead for the international tourism industry.”