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Tourism rebounds in Boston after a pent-up pandemic year

Tourism is rebounding in Boston. A group of tourists from North Carolina toasted inside the Cheers Bar on Beacon Hill.
Tourism is rebounding in Boston. A group of tourists from North Carolina toasted inside the Cheers Bar on Beacon Hill.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Duck boat tours, nearly chock full, are again circuiting the city. The Cheers bar is standing room only. And Old Town Trolley Tours, no longer restricted to a solitary stop, are truly a hop-on, hop-off experience again.

There are increasing signs, some subtle and some striking, that tourism is on the rebound in Boston after a pent-up pandemic year. Tourism is one of Boston’s major revenue sources, and estimates of losses during the shutdown ran into the billions.

“It’s in the air, it’s almost tangible, you can feel it,” David Gibbons, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, said of the spike in visitors drawn to the area’s rich history, graceful architecture, and wealth of food and entertainment options.

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Students from Waxahachie, Texas walked along the Freedom Trail.
Students from Waxahachie, Texas walked along the Freedom Trail.Christiana Botic for the Boston Globe

While there are no data to reflect the recent uptick, a walk around Boston this week revealed plenty of anecdotal evidence that tourists are savoring their newfound freedom.

A party of seven from Honolulu were eager to know “Which way is Little Italy?” — aka the North End — as they bought their duck boat tickets Tuesday morning. This trip was their farthest in the United States from the Hawaiian islands since the pandemic. Boston was what they were looking for, they said, far away, yet still in the United States.

Same for Amit and Naha Bara, of San Francisco. Before flying into Boston, they mostly had stuck to road trips closer to home.

“This is our first domestic flight,” said Naha Bara, 31, snapping photos at the site of the Boston Massacre downtown.

The couple began with a drive to Acadia National Park, followed by two nights in Boston. Next it’s onward to New York City.

A crowd gathered around the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in front of the State House.
A crowd gathered around the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in front of the State House.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The Baras, both computer engineers, haven’t had to miss work while traveling.

“Because of the West Coast-East Coast time difference, it is still very early there and we can roam around until noon,” and still be free to work remotely later in the day, said Amit Bara, 33, before the couple hurried off to catch a scheduled duck boat tour.

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South End Sara, Arborway Alex, and Waterfront Wanda awaited at the depot for “Boston’s original and world famous” land and water tours in front of the New England Aquarium. A party of 18 lined up ready to hop aboard rainbow-bedazzled South End Sara. By departure time, all the seats were filled.

Following close behind the amphibious vessels, Judy Garland’s voice rang out: “Clang, clang, clang goes the trolley,” a sure signal that trolley tours were back in swing.

A CityView trolley traveled through the Financial District in downtown Boston.
A CityView trolley traveled through the Financial District in downtown Boston. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“We’re definitely starting to see more volume,” said Bernie Casco, depot sales manager at Old Town Trolley Tours. “It feels, seems like, that pent-up demand is coming back.”

For months, the multi-tiered green-and-orange trolleys were restricted to a single stop. Getting off and on again was not allowed until the state permitted 50 percent capacity, Casco said. Now, riders can hop off at notable stops of their choosing.

Saturdays are the busiest, Casco said. “You see more of an influx, a healthy mix of locals and people from other states, and that’s a good sign that we’re trending in the right direction.”

Duck boat tours, nearly chock full, are again circuiting the city.
Duck boat tours, nearly chock full, are again circuiting the city.Christiana Botic for the Boston Globe

Other scenes of the tourism revival playing out: hand-holding families navigating their way along the Freedom Trail; a band of 20 backpack-wearing adults streaming by en masse; walking tour guides once again holding captive court. In front of the New England Aquarium, a dad mugging for the camera rodeo-style atop a dolphin statue.

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Mother and daughter Sallie and Terri Black, of Texas, on their first out-of-state trip since COVID-19, stopped off at the Cheers bar, across from the Boston Public Garden, for burgers Monday afternoon. They departed with souvenir mugs.

“[Boston] is just a place we always wanted to visit, and the [Houston] Astros are playing this week and being we’re from Texas ...” said Sallie Black, 25, of Dallas, trailing off.

“We had to come see ‘em,” Terri Black, 50, of Houston, finished the thought.

Quincy Market in the Faneuil Hall Marketplace is filled with visitors seeking food and drinks.
Quincy Market in the Faneuil Hall Marketplace is filled with visitors seeking food and drinks.Christiana Botic for the Boston Globe

Business has been booming since Memorial Day weekend, said Phil Varcholik, the tourist-driven bar’s general manager. On Monday evening it was hot outside and standing-room-only inside the basement pub that memorializes the long-running 1980s sitcom.

“This is as close to normal as we’ve had in a year, I’ll tell you,” Varcholik said.

Once the state lifted its remaining COVID-19 restrictions on May 29, “it was like zero to 100,” he said, adding that they did more business the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend than most entire weeks in the last year.

A Swan Boat filled with passengers passed under the footbridge in the Boston Public Garden lagoon.
A Swan Boat filled with passengers passed under the footbridge in the Boston Public Garden lagoon. Christiana Botic

Martha Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the local tourism industry is “on a trajectory for recovery for sure,” though she predicts “summer in Boston may be a little bit soft.”

Tour companies are seeing ramped-up interest and restaurant business is improving and should continue to over the summer with outdoor dining — if the weather cooperates, she said. Hotels are having a tougher time. Weekend business is “doing better” but midweek stays are way down.

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Once schools are dismissed for summer, Sheridan expects to see a further uptick. Sports venues operating at full capacity will add to it, as will convention attendees and corporate travelers who should rejoin the mix in the fall. (So far, corporate business travel remain elusive, tourism officials say).

“All of that is going to lead to a more robust recovery as we get to the fall,” Sheridan said.

On Tuesday morning, Valentina Herrera, 19, and Maria Perilla, 21, took respite on a shady bench across from the newly restored Boston Common monument honoring the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The cousins from Colombia were on their first out-of-country trip since COVID-19 hit.

“Being at home for one year and then travel, it feels like we’re taking a breath, like we’re starting to live again — that’s the feeling,” Perilla said.

This was the cousins’ first visit to Boston, the second stop on a two-week trek that began in New York City and would end in Providence. The big Boston draw for Perilla, an engineering student, was to see MIT.

“It’s like a dream for an engineer,” she said.


Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com or 617-929-1579. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.