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Will the trade war cut the number of tourists from China? The tourism industry is wary

Zoe Lin of Jupiter Legends, a tour group, supplied headsets so a Boston Duck Tours group could hear the narration in Chinese.
Zoe Lin of Jupiter Legends, a tour group, supplied headsets so a Boston Duck Tours group could hear the narration in Chinese. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff)

Boston’s tourism industry works hard to accommodate Chinese tourists, and with good reason: They’re the largest source of overseas visitors to the city.

For instance, some businesses have adopted WeChat Pay and Alipay, payment apps that are ubiquitous in China; Boston Duck Tours offers tours translated into Chinese languages; and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel hired Mandarin-speaking employees and rearranged its floor plan according to the principles of feng shui.

But as trade tensions between China and the United States remain unresolved, some people who count on Chinese spending here are starting to worry.

The festering dispute is “kind of . . . the elephant in the room,” said David O’Donnell, a spokesman for the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re all concerned that if it continues to escalate, it will hit the travel trade.”

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In the past, visitors from the United Kingdom ranked number one in Boston. But in 2016, Chinese tourists topped the list for the first time — an estimated 249,000 came that year. By 2017, the latest year for which numbers specific to Boston are available, the number had swelled to 301,000.

Among the factors that have contributed to the growth is the emergence of a robust middle class in China. According to a report by the analytics firm Oxford Economics, the number of Chinese households making enough to comfortably afford international travel ballooned from about 6 million in 2003 to 27 million in 2013. That figure is expected to grow by an additional 61 million by 2023.

According to federal data, roughly 3 million Chinese tourists visited the United States in 2018, and an estimated 3.2 million visited in 2017.

“The volume is something that’s unparalleled and unprecedented in the history of the travel trade,” O’Donnell said.

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In addition, Boston has become increasingly accessible, thanks to a new 10-year tourist visa and nonstop flights to China from Logan International Airport.

China’s Hainan Airlines began offering direct flights to Beijing in June 2014, and a year later, it launched a route between Boston and Shanghai. That May, Cathay Pacific Airways began offering direct flights to Hong Kong.

The Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, estimates those flights contribute about $600 million to the local economy every year.

O’Donnell said the Convention & Visitors Bureau had launched a Chinese-language website and a marketing campaign on the Chinese social media platform Weibo in 2014, and prior to that created a committee focused on increasing travel from China.

But now, with the United States and China at odds over trade policy, some businesses say the feud already is affecting the economy.

Daniel Andrew, the chief executive of Trademark Tours — which offers student-led tours of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Boston, as well as college campus summer programs that are popular with Chinese students — said in an e-mail that the company is “seeing a slowdown in Chinese visits.”

Andrew estimated that Chinese tourists account for 5 percent of the company’s customers, but 15 percent of its revenue.

Andrew didn’t say how much business Trademark Tours has lost, but offered that the decline was “likely due to the political tensions between the two countries.”

“America still has great appeal to the Chinese visitor,” he said, “but the so-called trade war is making our marketing efforts in China more difficult than in previous years.”

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A Chinese language Duck Tour at the Museum of Science.
A Chinese language Duck Tour at the Museum of Science.(David L Ryan/Globe Staff)

Bob Schwartz, a spokesman for Boston Duck Tours, said that an advisory issued last year by China about travel to the United States hasn’t helped. In that statement, the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., described the United States as unsafe.

“Public security in the United States is not good,” it said. “Cases of shootings, robberies, and theft are frequent.”

“I’ve never heard of another country trying to dissuade people from coming here, but I wouldn’t put it past the Chinese government to double-down on their messaging to not come here if things heated up,” Schwartz said.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that several Chinese agencies had issued additional advisories cautioning its citizens on travel to the United States, and last week The New York Times reported that tourism industry officials fear a nationwide decline in the number of Chinese visitors resulting from the trade dispute.

President Trump has threatened to raise tariffs on more than $300 billion worth of Chinese goods on top of tariffs already imposed on that country. Meanwhile, China has raised tariffs on $60 billion worth of US goods .

But O’Donnell said that a decrease in the number of visitors from China wouldn’t be catastrophic for the Boston-area tourism industry.

“I don’t think anyone has become so dependent [on Chinese tourism] that they would have to drastically revisit their entire business plan if this fell off,” he said.

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“It definitely would hurt, but I don’t think it would necessitate a complete overhaul of how these people are marketing themselves.”


Max Reyes can be reached at max.reyes@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @MaxJReyes.