China Town

Boston wants the Chinese tourists who come for a Harvard tour to stay awhile.

John Harvard

Photo by Tim Sackton/Flickr

Tourism officials don’t need an expert to tell them why Chinese travelers are visiting Boston in record numbers. China is a nation, after all, where Harvard Girl, a how-to manual written in 2000 by the parents of a Sichuanese student accepted to Harvard, sold millions of copies and remained a bestseller for over a year.

The Chinese are coming, by and large, to see Cambridge and its universities. They now represent the third-largest source of international visitors to Boston.

The challenge for Boston’s tourism industry is getting them to stick around after the campus tour. Because Chinese tourists tend to spend a lot of money, the stakes are high. “The growth has been so incredible in the last couple of years. It’s kind of taken everyone—not just in Boston, not just in Massachusetts, but everyone nationally—by surprise,” says Jackie Ennis, the head of international marketing for the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. “Not just raw numbers, but how much they are spending.”

Marketing Boston’s businesses to Chinese tourists, in particular, can get tricky. Just as Americans who visit China are amused by bad English translations on signs, Chinese visitors might laugh at our efforts to translate materials for them. “If we’re working with a local restaurant that offers a ‘catch of the day’—well, the ‘catch of the day’ is unheard of in Beijing,” says Evan Saunders, the CEO of Attract China, a Beijing marketing agency with an office in Boston. “You can’t get seafood caught that day. You’re better off saying ‘extremely fresh fish.’”

Boston’s history lures lots of American tourists, but that approach appeals less to international visitors. Even so, we have sights aside from Harvard that have appeal in modern Chinese culture. While a visitor from Shanghai might not care about Paul Revere, Attract China’s research suggests that many Chinese tourists might like the Salem witch trials, which echo periods of persecution in their own history. Basketball, and thus the Celtics, are hugely popular too, though not because of any direct efforts from the team. Actually, the Celtics lag behind the Miami Heat, which has launched a Chinese-language website and social-media campaign.

The next step for Boston to lure Chinese tourists: targeted marketing. “It’s new to all of us to figure out the best way to communicate with prospective Chinese visitors,” says Betsy Wall, the executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. Thanks to Harvard, we’ve got a head start on a lot of American cities. But it’s up to our businesses to make the most of that lead—or risk losing out to places that work harder.