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The Globe and Mail

Chinese appetite for tourism a rare bright spot for sector

People walk along Nanjing road, the main shopping area in Shanghai October 2, 2012. China celebrates "Golden Week" holiday to mark the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Aly Song/Reuters

China's Golden Week has started with two fatal accidents. In Hong Kong, 37 people died when a public ferry crashed into a boat taking revellers to watch a fireworks display. On the mainland, five German doctors were killed in a bus collision near Beijing. Half of China's 1.4 billion inhabitants are expected to travel during the national holiday. Yet while the country's new love of tourism is an economic blessing, it creates logistical challenges.

It's not yet clear what caused the Hong Kong boat crash. However the city, known for its safety and efficient transportation, is struggling to cope with an influx of tourists. Partly because territorial disputes have discouraged Chinese from visiting Japan, Hong Kong authorities expect 20 per cent more mainland tourists to visit during the eight-day holiday than a year ago. As many as 7.6 million people – more than Hong Kong's population – are expected to cross the border during the period.

The domestic picture is no better. China's top travel destinations welcomed 24 per cent more tourists than a year earlier on Oct. 1, according to the national travel bureau. While the slowing economy may have dampened demand for luxury goods, Chinese interest in short breaks is still high. The number of visitors to the new Three Gorges dam on National Day was up by 250 per cent year-over-year. Almost 36,000 people descended on Xi'an to see the Terracotta warriors on the same day, twice the number in 2011. The mass movement of people contributed to giant traffic jams across the country.

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For the rest of the world, China's latest export – its people – is only just getting under way. Only 38 million Chinese, or less than 3 per cent of the population, currently own a passport, though that number has been rising by 20 per cent a year.

Chinese tourism has been a rare bright spot for the global travel industry. The country is now the third-largest spender on international travel, after Germany and the United States, according to the World Tourism Organisation. In 2011, Chinese outbound travel rose 32 per cent. As the Chinese start their great march abroad, the rest of the world will see golden opportunities, as well as great gridlocks.

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