China Heading for Top Spot in World Tourism Rankings

BEIJING ~ With the Olympics as a launch pad and amid a rising global fascination in all things Chinese, China is expected to replace France as the world’s top tourism destination by 2014, according to experts.

From just 300,000 in 1978, the number of foreign visitors to China reached 22 million in 2006, excluding arrivals from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, according to the China National Tourism Administration.

“China is now an attractive destination for tourists the world over,” administration vice president Wang Zhifa told a travel industry forum here recently.

While tourism growth in France has been slow, China has been enjoying double-digit expansion for years, with the number of tourist arrivals doubling in the past five years alone.

As a result, China, originally expected to overtake France as the number-one tourism destination in 2020, is now tipped to do so six years earlier, according to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).

Xu Jing, the organization’s Asia-Pacific representative, said that China was on course to overtake the United States, the world’s number-three tourist destination, this year in terms of foreign visitor arrivals.

The Asian giant would then pass Spain, number two, by the end of the decade.

With an expected boost from next year’s Beijing Olympics, and another shot in the arm supplied by the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, China would overtake France by 2014, Xu said.

The Chinese capital is preparing to receive 500,000 overseas visitors during the 2008 Summer Games from August 8-24, up from 350,000 visitors in August 2006.

Those Olympic visitors are expected to spend about US$5 billion, according to China’s tourist board.

Meanwhile, foreign tour operators and airlines are expanding services to meet growing demand in Beijing and across the country.

“Our China business has grown 20 percent annually over recent years,” said Eric Bouladou, Asian manager for French firm Nouvelles Frontieres.

One explanation for China’s appeal is the wide variety of destinations on offer, he said.

In the world’s most populous nation, a tourist can find tranquility in the remote mountains of Tibet, visit ancient archaeological sites such as the Terracotta Warriors in Xian, climb the Great Wall, party in the big cities, relax on a southern island beach and eat several types of Chinese food.

“There is no typical tourist, so the range is very wide, from budget to luxury,” Bouladou said.

With China in high demand, Air France-KLM is boosting capacity, notably offering five extra flights per week to Shanghai this summer.

“We have very strong bookings,” said Air France’s director for greater China, Frank Legre.

The economic impacts for China of its tourism industry are stunning.

This year alone China’s tourism industry is expected to generate $78 billion, 2.5 percent of GDP, a figure that could rise to $277 billion by 2017, according to the UNWTO.

In Beijing, China’s top tourist draw, revenue from the industry is growing at about seven percent a year, accounting for around eight percent of the city’s gross domestic product, according to official figures.

The broader impact of the thriving sector on the rest of the economy is huge, accounting for $440 billion this year and up to $1.6 trillion by 2017, the UNWTO said.

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