As host to nearly 42m international tourists last year, China beat Italy for the first time to take fourth place among the world's most visited destinations after France, Spain and the United States, ac-cording to the World Tourism Organization (WTO). Hong Kong wasn't far behind either, vaulting into the top 10 to take 7th place after almost 22m visited the city in 2004. These two destinations outperformed their peers, growing at nearly 9% annually between 1995 and 2004, according to the WTO.
"China until some years ago was a destination for some lucky foreigners, who had business with it," says Rok Klancnick, the press chief of the WTO. "Gradually, in a very clever way, new legislation was designed, new staff educated, a lot of money was invested in breathtaking infrastructure."
Tourism is an increasingly important industry in China: it accounted for 5% of the country's GDP last year, and by World Travel Tourism Council's estimates, the industry's direct and indirect impact in 2005 should produce 11.7% of China's GDP and 64.6m jobs, or 8.6% of China's total employment. WTTC has estimated that travel and tourism GDP will grow 10.1% in 2005 and by 9.2% per annum, in real terms, between 2006 and 2015.
The tourism industry also drives much of the country's infrastructure and transportation initiatives, particularly in Beijing and Shanghai where preparations and the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics and the World Expo in Shanghai two years later are gathering steam. "The plans and infrastructure put in place to host those events are phenomenal," says Rick Miller, executive vice president at the WTTC. "Building a high speed train would take five years of planning and another 10 years for construction in other places, but in China, it takes 18 months… they get it done quickly. It's a question of focus and setting priorities."
Spurred by China's opening, increasing air services between the Mainland and other countries and rising domestic travel, every tourism indicator in the country has been on the rise since the mid- to late-1990s, including tourist spending, hospitality jobs, industry investment and industry revenue.
China's tourism boom has been a boon for other industries, including aviation (China is now the world's second-largest commercial aviation market after the US), real estate development (new hotels are popping up everywhere, from Hainan to Inner Mon-golia's Hohhot) and infrastructure construction (high-speed railways represent but one example).
But one of the most eye-popping indicators has been the capital investment the industry has managed to attract, which is expected to be just short of US$100bn this year, according to WTTC. "The capital investments being made by the government and industry players are astonishing, Miller says. "That, to me, is a barometer of the industry's and government's focus. The 9.1% growth [in capital investment] is a bet that this will translate to more travel expenditures."