A record number of Chinese tourists visited Boston last year, dethroning the United Kingdom as the number one source of overseas tourists for the first time, according to initial estimates. And next month, local tourism officials are leading their first sales mission to China to attract even more.
The number of Chinese visitors to the area has more than doubled over the past four years, to an estimated 230,000 last year, according to the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. The surge came as airlines added nonstop routes to Boston from several Chinese cities and new visa policies eased travel to the United States.
The visitors bureau is aiming to more than double the number of Chinese visitors to the city to half a million by 2021.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our visitor industry to take advantage of the incredible growth in China in their interest in visiting America,” said Patrick Moscaritolo, chief executive of the bureau, who is sending two people from his staff to join the group of tourism representatives heading there in March. “If we are ever going to dive into this market and make a full court press, the time is now.”
The effort to boost Chinese tourism in Boston comes amid concerns that the Trump administration’s travel ban for certain countries’ residents, currently on hold by the courts, has sent a message that the United States is not a welcoming place for foreigners.
Online booking websites around the country have reported a decline in the number of flight searches from cities abroad since President Trump announced the ban on refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.
In Boston, Chinese tourists far outspend those from other countries —
About 700,000 Canadians visited Boston last year, making Canada the top source of international tourists to the city.
But all eyes are on China.
The bureau started ramping up its efforts to attract Chinese tourists in 2013, in anticipation of the first nonstop flight between Boston and Beijing. It formed the China-Friendly Marketing Committee, developed brochures and videos in Mandarin, launched a Chinese website, and ran marketing campaigns on the Chinese social-networking site Weibo.
In December, the bureau hosted a workshop to educate retailers and tourism operators about the burgeoning Chinese market.
Hainan Airlines started flying nonstop between Beijing and Boston in 2014 and added a Shanghai-Boston flight the following year; Cathay Pacific Airways started flying from Hong Kong in 2015.
Chinese travelers to the United States can now also get a tourist visa that allows them to visit multiple times over 10 years without reapplying every year. In the past, Chinese travelers who planned to visit the United States only once, because of the hassle of visa applications, might go just to New York and Los Angeles, or maybe to San Francisco, said Angela Vento, general manager of the Sheraton Boston hotel and chairman of the tourism bureau’s China marketing committee.
With the looser visa rules, Chinese tourists may be more likely to add Boston to their list of cities to visit. “The 10-year visa is a game changer,” Vento said.
Vento instituted a number of accommodations for Chinese tourists when she arrived in Boston four years ago, including providing slippers, tea kettles, and ramen noodles for guests; making sure the concierge can recommend authentic Chinese restaurants; and adding noodles and congee rice porridge to the breakfast menu.
Vento is one of about a dozen Boston and state tourism representatives making the trip to China in mid-March. Hoteliers, tour operators, and representatives from the New England Aquarium, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Duck Tours, and other local attractions will join officials from the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism to meet with tour operators, travel bureaus, and the press and to host mini trade shows in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou.
The trip will be the first to China for Daniel Andrew, chief executive of Trademark Tours, which offers tours of Harvard, MIT, and Boston. Chinese visitors make up about 20 percent of his business, up from 5 percent just a few years ago, and he recently hired an employee from China to work with Chinese tour operators.
On the trip, Andrew is planning to promote his summer educational program, in partnership with local colleges, which gives students a taste of what it’s like to study in Boston. They stay in college dorms or residents’ homes, take classes taught by graduate students, and visit local attractions.
The number of Chinese college students in the state has more than tripled since 2010, to 19,435 last year, according to the Institute of International Education.
Andrew sees the trip as a way to spread American goodwill and combat negative perceptions resulting from Trump’s travel ban.
“We’re a little concerned with the current political climate that people from China see the US as not welcoming,” Andrew said.
Moscaritolo, head of the visitors bureau, noted that a US-China climate summit that was supposed to be held in Boston this year has not been scheduled, causing concern that it may be off the table because of the Trump administration’s skepticism about climate change. That would cost the city about $1 million in hotel and restaurant spending, Moscaritolo estimated, and eliminate a prime opportunity to show what Boston has to offer.
If this restrictive atmosphere continues, Moscaritolo won’t be confident of reaching his goal of half a million Chinese visitors in the next five years, he said.
“There are, all of a sudden, some significant headwinds,” he said.