Website looks to attract Chinese tourists to Harvard Square

Originally published March 12, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

Anyone who spends a lot of time in Harvard Square understands the importance of Chinese visitors to the local economy, and none quite as much as Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.

So when Attract China, an American website aimed at Chinese tourists, said they were launching a new site in Mandarin this April, Jillson said the association was keen to jump on board.

“We know from our experience that there are lots of tour groups who come to visit Harvard Square,” Jillson said. “This website is really something that will be marketed to the individual Chinese traveler.”

Attract China CEO Evan Saunders said five years ago, most Chinese tourists who came to visit America did so in a tour group. Now, Saunders said 70 percent of Chinese travelers are skipping the tours and picking their own itineraries. The only problem, Saunders said, is the lack of information about Boston and Cambridge available in languages other than English.

“We’re here to connect them,” Saunders said.

According to the Massachusetts Office of Tourism and Travel (MOTT), there were 150,000 visitors from China in Massachusetts in 2012, and they spent an estimated $465 million, generating $30 million in state and local taxes. That equates to $3,100 spent per person, and MOTT estimates that 80-90 percent of that spending happened in the Boston and Cambridge region. Saunders estimated the amount spent per tourist to be closer to $7,000.

From the beginning of 2013 through June, the number of Chinese tourists jumped to 800,000, a whopping 25 percent increase from the same time period in 2012, according to MOTT. The total number of overseas visits will not be available until September 2014, said Lisa Simmons, MOTT communications director.

“That bodes well for 2013 Massachusetts visitation from China,” Simmons said.

Saunders wants to be ready for the action. When he first launched the site a year and a half ago, Saunders said the Boston/Cambridge market was the first place he looked at. Now that there is a direct flight from Beijing to Boston, Saunders said he expects the number of tourists to grow.

“Two years ago, people weren’t sure if the China market was here to stay,” Saunders said, adding people often compared the situation to Japanese tourists who came in large numbers in the 1980s. “Now, there is a dramatic increase in awareness about this really valuable Chinese traveler. They’re spending more than the average international tourists … and we’re beginning to see the impact they’re having in this area.”

Jillson said Harvard Square sees 8-10 million visitors every year. The association will pay what Jillson described as a “quite reasonable” fee and see if it helps boost the square’s businesses.

“We’ll be able to track traffic through Google Analytics, so we’ll have some data,” Jillson said. “The economy has changed in China and there are more people with more expendable income, and they want to come here.”

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