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Meredith “Max” Hodges is looking forward to the moment in late November when, in the dimmed lights of the Boston Opera House, during the first act of the first performance of “The Nutcracker,” the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Snowflakes” begin to rise from the orchestra pit.

“To me, that means the holiday season has officially begun,” said Hodges, executive director of Boston Ballet. “I get chills just thinking about it.”

Winter is coming to Boston, and tourism industry leaders are trying to maintain a cautious optimism as events inevitably move back indoors. “The Nutcracker” is set for 35 performances, Boston Ballet’s first in-person shows since March 2020. Already 15,000 tickets have been sold, with requirements that patrons wear masks and present proof of either vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.


The return of beloved events promises some bright spots this holiday season, but industry leaders acknowledge that this winter could be rough for tourism in Boston.

Boston Ballet principal dancers Tigran Mkrtchyan and Ji Young Chae rehearsed for "the Nutcracker."
Boston Ballet principal dancers Tigran Mkrtchyan and Ji Young Chae rehearsed for "the Nutcracker."Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Granted, Boston in winter has always been a bit of a tough sell to tourists. The city has its draws, like proximity to winter sports and picturesque holiday light displays. But tourism typically dips between the spring and fall, even without the added stressors and complexities of the last 19 months.

And this winter may be especially difficult. As pandemic relief money — loans and grants for businesses and expanded unemployment payments — fades into the rearview mirror, some business leaders are approaching the winter with concerns. Many jobs in tourism-related industries have yet to return. Many businesses are still trying to regain their footing.

“Winter this year is going to look much different than last winter,” said Midori Morikawa, Boston’s chief of economic development. Last winter, COVID cases were at their peak and vaccines were hard to come by. This year, Morikawa said, she hopes things will look more positive. “We’re just getting ready for these sectors to open up a little bit more, whether it’s to hire back more workers or to welcome back more visitors.”


While leisure tourism was higher than expected through the fall, bolstered by events like the Red Sox playoffs and the first Boston Marathon since 2019, trade groups are still reluctant to hold in-person meetings and conferences. It doesn’t help that many white-collar workers are still remote. Boston’s tourism sector likely won’t fully recover until in-person meetings are truly back, said Martha Sheridan, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“The fall is looking relatively strong, all things considered,” Sheridan said. “I have some concerns about the winter because one of our biggest problems right now is that corporate travel, meetings, and conventions are not back to where we want them to be.”

Spring may be better, especially if the Delta variant wanes and vaccines become more widely available to children. But to make it through the next few years, Sheridan and heads of other tourism councils across the state have asked the state Legislature to allocate some American Rescue Plan dollars to marketing funding for tourism-related destinations. The tourism councils are asking for $95 million a year over three years.

“There’s a new appreciation and understanding of the value that tourism brings to our community,” Sheridan said, noting that the sector was rarely a priority before the pandemic. “I definitely got the impression that tourism was taken for granted, and that most people assumed that visitors would come. ... And now that they know what the world looks like when we don’t have visitors coming, spending money, and keeping residents employed, there’s been a change in that.”


Rosemarie Sansone, president and chief executive of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, said she is eagerly waiting for the star-shaped holiday lights to go up downtown, hopefully accompanied by returning shoppers, theater-goers, and restaurant guests milling about.

With some tourists, college students, and office workers back in the neighborhood, the district has recently seen foot traffic break 100,000 people a day — a good number for life under the pandemic, but nowhere near the roughly 250,000 daily visitors Downtown Crossing typically saw before March of 2020.

Still, Sansone ticked off a few bright spots: New restaurants. More people staying at area hotels. Retail stores adding new options, like a Toys ”R” Us pop-up inside the downtown Macy’s.

“We can see that slowly people are beginning to return,” she said.

Morikawa, Boston’s economic development chief, said city officials are trying to encourage visitors to all parts of the city, not just the well-trodden streets of downtown, with the All Inclusive Boston campaign launched this spring. She notes that campaign is running locally, too, encouragement to Bostonians to visit parts of the city they don’t usually frequent, like a Dorchester resident going out to East Boston for dinner, Morikawa said.


City officials are also trying to incentivize service-sector businesses to retain their employees, Morikawa said. They have allocated $1.9 million to restaurants — for $5,000 grants for small restaurants, $900 employee retention bonuses for workers who stay on for three months, and education grants for workers seeking associate’s degrees. It’s a small pilot program, with just 25 businesses enrolled, but Morikawa said she hoped it would help restaurants keep enough workers to extend their hours and ride out the winter.

“It’s looking good, it’s looking positive. People are back, traffic is up, hotel reservations are up,” Morikawa said. But she, too, expressed concerned over how corporate workers staying home and the lack of business travel would affect Boston in the long run.

“Frankly, no one has an answer,” she said. ‘”I think we’re just trying to figure that piece out.”

Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.