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Even as Boston tourism rebounds, small vendors struggle through the summer season

Hawkers of key chains, sunglasses, balloons, and local tours are blaming inflation and a stronger focus on big-ticket experiences

People watched performers outside Faneuil Hall in Boston. The summer months are traditionally a popular time for visits to the city by tourists from all around the world.Vincent Alban For The Boston Globe

Boston’s tourism industry is feeling split in two this summer.

By the numbers, it’s been a busy season. Hotel occupancy in June was at 86 percent, up from 82 percent last year, and is projected to return to 2019 occupancy levels this year according to Boston-based hotel consulting firm Pinnacle Advisory Group. Domestic passenger traffic at Logan Airport saw a 5 percent increase from last year, while international passengers are up 27 percent and have recovered to pre-COVID levels.

But many street vendors who sell key chains, sunglasses, balloons, and local tours say their business is down. They blame inflation, more focus on big-ticket experiences, and a stingier approach to the quick splurge.

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“It’s gone down big time,” said John Delb’ar, who has been selling balloon toys by Faneuil Hall for 15 years. “If last year we made 60 bucks a day, this year we make 15.”

Kemal Akbogam, who has been selling toys for 20 years in the same area, raised similar concerns.

“Probably,” he said, “people don’t have as much free money as they did last year.”

Last year was a big comeback for Boston tourism after the dark days of 2020 and 2021. The surge in travel after pandemic lockdowns were lifted meant a huge spike for the tourism industry. But this year feels different, and many on the front lines believe that a big part of it is inflation. Flights, hotels, and food are all expensive, so visitors are cutting back on the extras.

“A lot more people flinch at the price, a lot more people seem more stressed,” said Richard Finnell, a Trolley Tour ticket sales team member. “A lot of people who travel to places like Boston and New York City are usually more affluent, but you can still sense the stress.”

Union Street in Boston was bustling last week.Vincent Alban For The Boston Globe

As he took a break from selling tickets for tours at Faneuil Hall last week, Chris Carrado said rising prices have changed tourists’ spending priorities. Travel is a luxury item, he said, and basic necessities like food, rent, and gas are already very expensive. What’s more, he noted, people may be allocating most of their vacation budget on things they pay for upfront rather than spur-of-the-moment buys once they get here.

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“People are pre-planning,” he said. “Because COVID shifted things online.”

The Boston Duck Tours, New England Aquarium, and whale watching tours — activities tourists can plan online and in advance — all report an uptick in tourist activity. When you ask them, this season has been extremely successful.

“Tourism seems to be back in Boston,” said Tom Vigna, director of marketing and sales from Boston Duck Tours. “We’re about equal with pre-pandemic levels. This is the first typical summer since pre-COVID.”

Still, Vigna acknowledged the effect inflation may be having on the smaller businesses in the tourism industry.

“People are more price conscious these days,” he said. “Experiences that you can’t re-create anywhere else seems to be what they’re spending money on.”

Then there are the rhythms of summer in a city where life is increasingly back to normal. From major gatherings like the recent NAACP convention, to big concerts including those by Pink, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift, to the old reliable beer gardens and Red Sox games, there’s more going on than the last few summers. But those events, too, cost money, more than they did a few years ago.

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“Things that are doing well are desirable to both local and regional guests as well as tourists, like Provincetown and the whale watching,” said Matthew Murphy, a director with the Boston Harbor City Cruises.

The Liberty Star ship headed out into Boston Harbor.Vincent Alban For The Boston Globe

But no matter whom you ask, there seems to be a consensus that over the last few summers, the tourism industry has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re seeing visitation similar to 2019 levels at the New England Aquarium,” said Suzanne Liola Matus, vice president of marketing, sales, and visitor experience. “Since we’ve continued to maintain capacity limits to manage crowding and ensure the best possible experience for guests, we do sell out, especially on weekends.”

But at least one sector of the local tourism industry has not yet recovered.

International visitors, from China in particular, are still fewer than they were before the pandemic, said Vigna from the Boston Duck Tours and Murphy from the Boston Harbor City Cruises. Chinese tourists were a frequent sight on the streets of Boston before COVID, he notes, but the country’s tight restrictions prevented many from making plans this summer.

“They’re a decent chunk of our business in a typical year,” said Vigna. “That demographic hasn’t fully recovered yet.”

Young boys from the Sangmyeong Elementary School in Seoul ate at Quincy Market.Vincent Alban For The Boston Globe

Aruni Soni can be reached at aruni.soni@globe.com. Follow her @AruniSoni.