New Hampshire’s highway signs have long included the French word for welcome. Now, a program that started as a class project is helping businesses back up that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it message.

“Bienvenue New Hampshire” offers marketing support, translation services, workshops and training videos to help the state’s tourism industry better connect with French-speaking visitors from Canada. Started as a class project at Plymouth State University three years ago, it recently was awarded $55,000 in grant funding from the Northern Border Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership aimed at boosting economic development in northern New England.

French-speaking tourists are a key component of New Hampshire’s $4 billion tourism industry: Plymouth State’s Institute for New Hampshire Studies estimates that nearly half a million Canadians visit the state each year, each spending an average of $250. But they spend even more time — and money — in neighboring Maine and Vermont, and French professor Katharine Harrington thinks that could change if New Hampshire was more welcoming.

In Burlington, Vermont, for example, shops display “Bienvenue Quebecois” stickers, some retail clerks wear pins that say “Je parle Francais” (I speak French), and a local cultural organization offers French language classes for businesses.

“New Hampshire has become sort of this pass-through place,” Harrington said, in part because it has just one, remote border crossing. Visitors may enter the U.S. in Vermont, then make their way to the Maine coast or Cape Cod or Boston, she said.

“We’re sort of this unknown state,” Harrington said. “We really are missing out on the majority of the visitors. There are different reasons for that, but there’s definitely room for improvement.”

Some of Bienvenue New Hampshire’s past projects have included creating a bilingual visitors’ guide for a Chamber of Commerce, adding French text to the website for the White Mountain National Forest and holding training sessions for outdoor program managers at the Appalachian Mountain Club.

The latter group learned common French phrases involved in outdoor recreation, such as “Where is the trail to the summit?” and “Where can one camp?”

Chris Thayer, the club’s director of North Country programs and outreach, said the goal was to improve the staff’s comfort and familiarity with the language as they interact with hikers at AMC huts and lodges, and to attract more Canadian visitors.

“AMC has a broader institutional relationship with Plymouth State University, and our ability to collaborate with the Bienvenue New Hampshire project team was a natural extension of our on-going work,” he said.

Some French-speaking tourists, however, already find New Hampshire plenty welcoming. Jean-Francois Nadeau, 32, of Drummondville, Quebec, said he first traveled to New Hampshire five years ago and has been back every year since. While he did enjoy speaking French with an employee during his stay at a Tilton hotel in 2014, he doesn’t think translating menus and brochures will make much of a difference. Instead, he thinks New Hampshire should focus on reaching out to young families through the Internet and social media.

“To be honest, we are happy to leave our French speaking world and change our state of mind completely,” he said. “That’s what keeps us loving and returning to the New England states every year. The important thing is to show us what you’ve got to offer — and you have a lot — rather than having a ‘simulated’ French culture.”

If nothing else, the program is giving Plymouth State students a chance to practice their skills in the real world, however.

“Suddenly they realize that they have skills that are useful, that are sought-after and that actually not many people have,” Harrington said. “Translation is very difficult … but in the end, they’re pretty proud of the final product.”

Shannon Meeks, 19, is majoring in French and graphic design, and hopes someday to work in the video game industry in a French-speaking country. She has helped translate information for a toy and book shop in Littleton and translated a pamphlet for a nonprofit group that helps women start businesses.

“It was really fun,” she said. “Even though we were doing it in class, it was something that helped people outside of class, so it was a really practical application to a real world situation.”

Photo Credit: A sign welcoming visitors in both English and French is seen across the border from Vermont in Cornish, N.H. Students studying French at Plymouth State University are using their language and cultural skills to attract Canadian tourists to New Hampshire’s North Country. Jim Cole / Associated Press