Sunday, November 25, 2007

Tourism: China lays claim to world's largest domestic tourism market

Chinese tourists are seeking novel adventures, such as camel trekking in the Kumtag Desert of western China

Chinese officials say they have the world's largest domestic tourism market based upon number of travelers. And the World Trade Organization says China is on track to become the number one international tourist destination by 2020. As economic development swells the ranks of China's middle-class, so does the demand for new destinations. Sam Beattie has the story.

The Forbidden City in Beijing and other popular attractions in China draw tourists from around the world. But the Chinese themselves constitute the bulk of the visitors in their country. China's National Tourist Office recorded more than a billion domestic travelers in 2006. That means the size of the domestic tourism industry in China has nearly doubled in this decade alone.

Attractions such as Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven in Beijing are national icons. And for elderly Chinese, it is a trip to remember forever.

At 58, this is Zhao Zhengling's first trip to the capital. "Beijing is the historical heritage of our country,” he says. “It has an abundance of historical heritage. If you do not come to Beijing once in your lifetime it's a great pity."

Incomes in China are growing, and along with that, more time for leisure among the middle class. Younger Chinese in particular are looking farther afield for their holiday destinations.

Some tourists have come to the desert on the outskirts of Dunhuang, an outpost of the ancient Silk Road. They are camel trekking, some 1800 kilometers from Beijing.

Tourist operator Zhou Haijun says more people want to feel the open spaces of nature. "Before, people liked comfortable conditions in hotels. Now there are more people who like to get closer to nature, get inside nature. This concept has come from people loving and caring for the environment."

Deep in the sand dunes of the Kumtag, China's sixth largest desert, a group of travelers is enjoying the isolation. They say Dunhuang and other remote towns offer a rare chance to relax.

"Everybody knows about The Great Wall, and there are a lot of people going there,” says one in the group. “I wanted to know how the desert feels. With the sun set, the trees, it is amazing."

The dunes are still off the beaten path, but they may not be for long. Economists predict China's domestic tourism industry will continue to grow in line with its economy.

By Sam Beattie Dunhuang, western China
Published with the permission of Voice of America