By 2020, China is set to become the world's largest tourism destination and the fourth major source of tourists, the World Tourism Organization predicts.
The rapid development of China's tourism during the past decade has exceeded global expectations. The country led Asia in overseas tourist arrivals last year, Emi Maccoll, a World Tourism Organization official, said at a World Tourism Day event held recently in Yinchuan, capital of northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
Many overseas visitors come to China to gain a better understanding of its long history, unique ethnic culture and enjoy its beautiful and diverse landscapes.
Almost all Chinese provinces provide domestic and foreign tourists with package tours featuring a strong local flavor. Yunnan Province, for instance, known as the "Kingdom of Plants", offers eco-friendly tours. Tibet, where the world's highest peak Mount Qomolangma is located, organizes mountain-climbing tours, while provinces in northeast China provide skiing holidays.
China's income from international tourists reached 17.8 billion US dollars in 2001, up 9.7 percent from 2000. For the first time the country surpassed Britain and Germany, ranking fifth in profits from tourism after the United States, Spain, France and Italy.
Meanwhile, China's domestic tourist income in 2001 exceeded 352.2 billion yuan (42.4 billion US dollars), up 10.9 percent from 2000.
The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region alone earned 1.1 billion yuan from tourism in 2001. The regional government plans to double tourism income by 2005 to take the tourism sector to five percent of the region's gross domestic product.
Charles Wilson, a British tourist, said: "Many of my friends want to visit Ningxia because the region combines ethnic culture with fine scenery."
Gu Chaoxi, deputy director of the National Tourism Administration (NTA), said China maintained a near double-digit growth in both overseas tourist arrivals and tourism revenue over the past two decades. This was unprecedented in the world. If the country kept up such a momentum, it was sure to be the world's leading tourist destination in 2020.
Zhang Jianzhong, another NTA official, called for relaxed rules to allow more investment from non-state sectors and foreign companies to boost the country's tourist industry.
China has opened up its tourism sector to foreign competition, including allowing foreign operators to hold majority stakes in joint ventures or set up solely-owned businesses.
The country will gradually phase out regional restrictions on foreign operators, simplify procedures for approving foreign-invested projects and bring the regulatory system into line with international practice.
However, many problems remain. Infrastructure at some popular scenic destinations is far from satisfactory. Rivalry among some travel agencies had broken the law, said Song Chaoqi, vice-president of the China Tourism Association.