- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2001

BEIJING The first tourists from mainland China, who arrived on the Taiwanese-held island of Kinmen yesterday to popping fireworks and dancing children, offered an early hint of what lies in store for the rest of the world.

Like the Japanese before them, the Chinese are going in for mass tourism for the first time in their long history, and industry analysts say that within 20 years China will become the leading supplier of globe-trotting vacationers.

Many of the tourists visiting Kinmen, also known as Quemoy, were born on the island but moved to China before the civil war that divided them from their relatives for five decades.

The desire to visit relatives who have fanned out across the globe in the decade since the Communists came to power in Beijing is one factor helping drive interest in overseas visits.

More significant, analysts say, is China's growing middle class with the ability to pay for overseas tours, combined with a traditional Chinese fascination with the world beyond their borders.

The boom affects domestic as well as international travel, with a record 45 million people hitting road, rail and airlines during last month's seven-day lunar new year, traditionally a time for family reunions much like the American Thanksgiving.

But this year more than ever, many shunned their filial duties to explore the incredible breadths of the world's third-largest country.

"Everyone still travels at New Year like before," said Wang Suqi of China International Travel Service (CITS). "But now they are wearing the baseball caps of their tour group."

China's Communist Party leaders may rail against "hostile foreign forces" and their imperialist ambitions, yet their people have long been intrigued by the world beyond.

Following in the footsteps of Japanese package tourists of the 1970s and 1980s, and more recently the Taiwanese and Koreans, the mainland Chinese appear ready to dwarf them all.

The World Tourism Organization expects outbound tourism from China to soar from the current 10 million people per year to 50 million by 2010, and 100 million by 2020, making China the leading single source of tourists worldwide.

"We sent several thousand people abroad in the last week of January," said Mr. Wang, head of outbound travel at CITS, China's largest tour operator. Top destinations included Thailand, Malaysia, Japan and Australia.

"Business was 40 percent up on last year, but we could have sent 100 times as many tourists. There were simply not enough planes to meet the demand, and visas are difficult to get. Besides, 98 percent of Chinese still don't have passports."

For decades, leisure travel in the People's Republic was the preserve of the elite. Model workers might earn an annual week at the beach, or a spell in a state-run resort, but the options for most were limited and local.

During the Cultural Revolution, some young people became Red Guards mainly for the free train tickets to make revolution across the country. After the government relaxed internal travel restrictions in the 1980s, economic reforms nurtured a middle class that sought broader horizons and was able to pay the fare.

Over the past two years, the government has encouraged their wanderlust by introducing three "golden weeks" of public holidays, at May Day, National Day on Oct. 1, and the Spring Festival or lunar new year, which just passed.

"All my friends go abroad when they can," said Li Shuang, a Beijing-based film producer. "It's become a question of 'face.' You go abroad to open your eyes and broaden your knowledge, but especially if people you know have been abroad. You don't want to lose face."

In October, Mr. Li took his sister to South Korea on a package tour. "It was cheap, convenient and I wasn't doing anything else that week."

He recalled the local tour guide's wide-eyed wonder. "From October 1 to 4, guess how many Chinese tourists have visited Seoul?" he asked. "Twenty thousand. The Chinese will take over the whole tourist world before long. Terrifying."

Clad in identical tour caps, clutching the same tour bags and following a flag held aloft by their guide, the Chinese may appear innocents abroad. Yet gambling, forbidden in China, is a major factor luring Chinese travelers to Macao, Australia and North Korea, which now boasts two casinos.

Chinese group tours are limited to 10 countries and regions with "approved destination status," namely Hong Kong, Macao, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Seven more Asian destinations, including Taiwan, may open up this year, but Europe and North America remain some way off.

By dragging out bilateral negotiations on tourist access, Mr. Wang believes, the West is missing out.

"Chinese shopping is shocking," he said. "We buy on a family or group basis if one person from a village or work unit is going abroad, everyone gives him money to buy them things. I've seen Chinese visiting Thailand who buy 20 crocodile skin belts each, and 10 gold necklaces."

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