NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) – Rich socialite Alva Belmont spent a fortune building a Chinese teahouse behind her mansion estate in this seaside resort for Gilded Age industrialists. Now, nearly a century later, the Chinese are arriving in her backyard.

As China’s economy booms, its emerging middle class is venturing abroad. Sensing a market worth billions of dollars, New England tourism officials from Newport to Boston to Vermont are trying to tap into it, making attractions accessible to Chinese-speaking visitors, offering cruises that cater to Chinese tourists and marketing themselves in China.

Just over 10,500 Chinese-speaking tourists visited the famed Newport mansions with bus tour groups in 2007, a number that museum officials expect will grow as an estimated 100 million Chinese travel outside their homeland by 2020.

“We have a greater and greater demand from our visiting public for translations in Mandarin,” said Trudy Coxe, CEO of The Preservation Society of Newport County.

Major Chinese tourist destinations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hawaii, Nevada and New York City have worked with the Chinese government to ease rules hampering the tourism industry. But much smaller players could also reap benefits from a broader agreement the U.S. government reached in December that allows Chinese travel agencies to market packaged tours to the U.S. It also permits U.S. destinations to advertise directly to the Chinese public.

Few Chinese tourists, if any, visit the U.S. just to see the Newport mansions. But Chinese bus tour operators often stop for a few hours in Newport while shuttling between New York, Boston, Cape Cod and Montreal, said Dan Fryer, who coordinates the bus tours for the Preservation Society.

In Newport, those tour groups generally head straight for The Breakers, a spectacular 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo that the Vanderbilt family, steamship and railroad magnates, called their “summer cottage.”

The need for better Mandarin translations became evident in September when Bryant officials took pingpong star Zhuang Zedong to The Breakers during a tour of Rhode Island. Zhuang’s 1971 encounter with an American pingpong player during a competition in Japan helped spark “pingpong diplomacy” between President Richard Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Upon arriving at The Breakers, Zhuang received a tour pamphlet written in Chinese – except he couldn’t read it, said his host, Denise Schwerin of Bryant, who speaks Chinese. The decades-old guide was written in Chinese characters no longer used in mainland China. The syntax was also incomprehensible, said Ma Sushan, a Bryant student from Beijing who helped write a new translation.

“Chinese tourists would be like, ‘Huh?”‘ she said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

In Boston, Chinese bus tour groups hit well-worn tourist destinations like the landmark Trinity Church in Copley Square, the campuses of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and colonial Quincy Market for a spot of lunch.

Eliminating language barriers created a new niche market for Massachusetts Bay Lines, which runs harbor cruises and whale watches. Two years ago, the company began running cruises focusing on the history of Boston Harbor for a handful of Chinese-language bus operators, said Debbie Hazell, the line’s office manager.

“We knew there was a market there, and it didn’t seem to be growing much,” Hazell said.

Sensing an opportunity, the company paid a translator to record its harbor tour script into Mandarin. Now Massachusetts Bay Lines books harbor cruises for about 40 Chinese-language bus tour operators. Hazell said the company hopes for more growth if Logan International Airport begins direct service to China.

Another upside to their Chinese tourist business: it provides a constant stream of business nearly the whole year, Hazell said, except during Chinese New Year, typically in January or February.

“Once the season hits, and the season has certainly begun, they go all year,” she said.

Even Vermont is working to get a toehold in the Chinese market. Vermont’s Chamber of Commerce operates an office in the Chinese commercial hub of Shanghai and its staff has attended three international travel expositions in China since 2006, said Chris Barbieri, director of its Asia Division.

Vermont’s tourism department does not track the number of Chinese-speaking visitors to the state, so it’s not clear whether that has yet drummed up new tourism business.

But down the line, the chamber intends to market the Green Mountain State directly to Chinese travel agents as a place where tourists from densely packed cities can unwind by hiking in the countryside or outlet shopping in Manchester Center.

Later this summer or fall, Barbieri is hosting a Chinese TV crew from Shanghai filming a travel documentary about Vermont that will air in China. He hopes that will drum up even more interest from Chinese tourists.

“It’s a market we don’t feel like we can ignore,” he said.

On the Net:

Massachusetts Bay Lines:

The Preservation Society of Newport County:

AP-ES-05-10-08 1346EDT

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