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When you think of the world’s most romantic cities you might think Paris, Venice or even (gasp!) San Francisco. Well, 20- somethings from China would place Seattle at the top of that list.

“For young people like me ­ … Seattle is a very romantic place,” says Qin Li, 24, who grew up in Shanghai and is pursuing a Master of Communication and Digital Media at The University of Washington (she was my student this fall).

And don’t think it can all be credited to the romantic comedy classic “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Li says a new movie “Beijing Meets Seattle” is updating our city’s romantic image for a new generation in her home country.

“Beijing Meets Seattle” (also called “Finding Mr. Right”) was released in China last March and was an instant blockbuster, becoming one of the highest-grossing domestic films ever in the country.

The movie follows a pregnant woman as she travels from Beijing to Seattle in search of true love — and U.S. citizenship for her baby. It’s hard to access the film here, but the trailer hints at an irreverent romcom full of handsome suitors, sexy jokes and the requisite shots of the Space Needle at night (though much of the movie was, in fact, filmed in Vancouver).

Li says the movie capitalizes on Seattle’s romantic brand in China as a dreamy rain-scape full of lovelorn young people pining in coffee shops. Add to that two popular actors in the leading roles and a plot that touches on controversial topics — having a baby in the United States and choosing love over money in a marriage — and Li says the movie hit on a “magic formula” that appeals directly to her demographic — young, educated and internationally savvy.

Tom Norwalk of Visit Seattle, an organization that promotes tourism to the city, says the film was “lightening striking twice,” for the Seattle tourism industry.

“We already had “Sleepless in Seattle;” very few movies happen that stick with a city and a city’s reputation,” says Norwalk in amazement, This movie “has captivated a younger generation in China, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect.”

Chinese tourism to the United States has been on the rise for a few years. Norwalk says this is, in part, thanks to improved visa processing between the two countries, as well as an increasingly wealthy Chinese population that can afford international travel.

But Seattle has emerged as a popular destination among these new tourists. The latest numbers are from April 2013 but they show a 22 percent increase from 2012. And Norwalk expects that number to keep growing — he anticipates China to be the top country for inbound international travel to our region within a “couple of years” (it’s now Japan).

And those travelers come with money. Visit Seattle reports that Chinese tourists to Seattle spent $35 million between January and October of last year.

Of course, our popularity can’t be credited entirely to a couple hit movies. Norwalk says many Chinese tourists are seeking a more unique or “authentic” experience in the United States than a typical trip to New York or Los Angeles can offer. He adds that our fresh air (in short supply in China’s big cities) and proximity to nature are major selling points as well.

But “Beijing Meets Seattle” is a factor, says Norwalk. And while he’s careful to point out that they haven’t made a study of tourists who have been directly inspired by the film, he adds, “We are finding a lot more young women visiting Seattle.”

When I asked Li whether any of her friends back in China are considering a trip to the Pacific Northwest because of the movie, she laughed, shaking her head “no,” but added that a friend just the other day remarked on Facebook about “how romantic” her life must be here.

“They could have called it anything, ‘Beijing Meets … New York or Vancouver,’ ” she says. “But for young people Seattle means something romantic.”

And then, like a scene from a movie, Li picks up her oversized white coffee mug and takes a sip as rain spatters on the cafe window behind her.

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist,, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: Twitter: @SeaStute