AUGUSTA, Maine — As budget-making lawmakers eked out a vacationless weekend in the bowels of the Maine State House, Vacationland was coming alive.
For the first time, the Boston-based Sunshine Travel brought a group of international tourists by the Maine State House as they charted a course up from Ogunquit to Bar Harbor, with a stay in Bangor on Saturday night.
The company that caters to Chinese-speaking tourists reflects the state’s growing share of tourism from the country where a growing middle class and changing cultural norms are propelling more travel abroad.
Federal officials project the number of Chinese tourists will rise faster than any other nation between 2015 and 2021, growing at an average of 14 percent per year to become the second-largest country of origin for travelers to the U.S., behind Mexico.
Lily Chen, the product development manager for Sunshine Travel, said the company’s steadily increased its tour offerings in Maine in recent years as a result.
“Three years ago, our two-day tour to Bar Harbor didn’t have enough guests a lot of the time,” Chen said.
In 2015, it ran every other week. Last year, it ran every week. The stop Saturday by the State House — accompanied by a photography instructor — is part of its first go at a three-day trip through the Pine Tree State, or the Lobster State, as the case may be.
“Each year we recruit guests to lobster festivals, and the itinerary is only lobster eating,” Chen said.
Other Chinese cultural trends also benefit tourism in Maine, she said. For a culture previously focused more on saving money to pass down to the next generation, Chen said treating oneself has “become more and more common and more acceptable.”
“Besides the middle class, I think a lot of senior retirees … want to relax and enjoy their life,” Chen said.
Still, exact estimates of Maine’s share of the overall tourist activity from China are hard to come by, and it’s not a particular focus for state officials, as the state relies on the regional Discover New England partnership to market Maine to foreign travelers.
“All of the six states sort of have to come to a consensus on what markets are most appropriate for all of us,” Steve Lyons, acting director of the Maine Office of Tourism, said.
But Lyons noted China’s in the mix as a potential growth market, based on the strong forecast.
Even for Sunshine Travel, Chen said she doesn’t have exact figures on how many people are making the trip from China to Maine.
She estimated the company took about 20,000 visitors on bus tours around the Northeast last year, with at least 35 percent who primarily speak Chinese. She estimated between 30 percent and 40 percent of the company’s passengers set foot in Maine at some point during their tour.
The group’s expansion of trips year over year, however, signals one way in which Maine’s benefitting from increasing connections between China and Boston, after a direct flight started up in 2014.
Xiaorong “Sharon” Horton, a Realtor and secretary of the Maine China Network, said she thinks those airline routes have played a role in boosting tourism to New England. Marketing could play a role, too, but that doesn’t always come in expected ways.
Horton said she expects that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan’s recent visit to Baxter State Park and other destinations in Maine will help boost the profile of those destinations, including for Chinese tourists chasing fashionable stops.
[ Mark Zuckerberg visits Millinocket]
“I’m confident that it may not be immediate, but in the next year or two, I think there will be more people visiting the Baxter area,” Horton said.
With that, Horton said hiking and outdoor activities continue to grow more popular, but Chen said her tour group has yet to see that trend take off. But Zuckerberg’s visit can’t hurt, she said.
“I think the Facebook founder being there in Maine hiking will help,” she added, envisioning a new tour that involves hikes in the state.
But even for businesses with an established introduction to Chinese visitors, maintaining that link can be a challenge.
The now-retired Capt. John Nicolai had fostered a connection to tourists from China and Japan aboard his Bar Harbor-based lobster boat Lulu, a focus that involved gaining a working knowledge of Mandarin and writing his ship’s name in Chinese and Japanese characters.
We took a tour aboard Lulu with Capt. Nicolai in 2014.
But the Chinese script written on signs for the business’ ticket booth are unfamiliar to Nicolai’s successors, brothers James and Andy Allen, who bought Nicolai’s business earlier this year.
James Allen said he and his brother don’t have such a specific focus on attracting tourists from China or other international destinations, relying mostly on a history of positive reviews on TripAdvisor to get the attention of visitors.
And that’s not a bad strategy, based on Chen’s description of the planning her tour group customers do.
“We realized that people come overseas for American trips they don’t book the trip ahead of time, they book it after they land,” Chen said. “They will call or come in the office, and they want any tour departing tomorrow.”