Tourism Development in China

The Growth of Tourism in China

Great Wall of China Picture
Tourists explore the Great Wall of China. Matt Rosenberg

Tourism is a burgeoning industry in China. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), 57.6 million foreign visitors entered the country in 2011, generating over $40 billion dollars in revenue. China is now the third most visited country in the world, behind only France and the United States. However, unlike many other developed economies, tourism is still considered a relatively new phenomenon in China.

As the country industrializes, tourism will become one of its primary and fastest growing economic sectors. Based on current UNWTO forecasts, China is expected to become the world's most visited country by 2020.

History of Tourism Development in China

Between 1949 and 1976, China was closed-off to foreigners with the exception of a selected few. During that time, travel and tourism was for all intents and purposes considered a political activity. Domestic tourism hardly existed and outbound travel was limited almost exclusively to government officials. To Chairman Mao Zedong, leisure travel was considered a capitalistic bourgeois activity and therefore forbidden under Marxian principles.

Shortly after the Chairman's death, China's most famous economic reformist, Deng Xiaoping, opened up the Middle Kingdom to outsiders. Contrary to Maoist ideology, Deng saw the monetary potential in tourism and began to promote it intensely.

China quickly developed its own travel industry. Major hospitality and transportation facilities were constructed or renovated. New jobs such as service personnel and professional guides were created, and a National Tourism Association was established. Foreign visitors quickly flocked to this once forbidden destination.

In 1978, an estimated 1.8 million tourists entered the country, with the majority coming from neighboring British Hong Kong, Portuguese Macau, and Taiwan. By 2000, China welcomed over 10 million new oversea visitors, excluding the aforementioned three locations. Tourists from Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States comprised the largest share of that inbound population.

During the 1990s, the Chinese central government also issued several policies to encourage the Chinese to travel domestically, as a means of stimulating consumption. In 1999, over 700 million trips were made by domestic tourists. Outbound tourism by Chinese citizens recently become popular, as well. This is due to a rise in the Chinese middle-class. The pressure presented by this new class of citizens with disposable income has caused the government to ease international travel restrictions greatly. By the end of 1999, fourteen countries, mainly in Southeast and East Asia, were made designated overseas destinations for Chinese residents. Today, over a hundred countries has made it onto China's approved destination list, including the United States and many European countries.

Since reform, China's tourism industry has registered consistent growth year-after-year.

The only period in which the country experienced a decline in inbound numbers are the months following the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. The brutal military crackdown of peaceful pro-democracy protestors painted a poor image of the People's Republic to the international community. Many travelers ended up avoiding China based on fear and personal morals.

Tourism Development in Modern China

With the start of the new millennium, China's inbound tourism volume is expected to increase even further. This prediction is based on three major principles: (1) China joining the World Trade Organization, (2) China becoming a center of global business, and (3) The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

When China joined the WTO in 2001, travel restrictions in the country were relaxed further. The WTO reduced formalities and barriers for cross-border travelers, and global competition helped cut costs.

These changes additionally enhanced China's position as a country for financial investment and international business. The rapidly developing business environment has helped the tourism industry prosper. Many businessmen and entrepreneurs often visit popular sites while on their business trips.

Some economists also believe the Olympic Games fostered an increase in tourism numbers due to worldwide exposure. The Beijing Games not only put "The Bird's Nest" and "Water Cube" on center stage but some of Beijing's most incredible wonders were displayed as well. Moreover, the opening and closing ceremonies showcased to the world China's rich culture and history. Shortly after the conclusion of the games, Beijing held a Tourism Industry Development Conference to present new plans to boost profits by riding the game's momentum. At the conference, a multi-year plan was set in place to increase the number of inbound tourists by seven percent. To realize this goal, the government plan on taking a series of measures, including stepping up tourism promotion, develop more leisure facilities, and reduce air pollution. A total of 83 leisure tourism projects were presented to potential investors. These projects and goals, along with the country's continued modernization will undoubtedly set the tourism industry on a path of continuous growth into the foreseeable future.

Tourism in China has received a major expansion since the days under Chairman Mao. It is no longer uncommon to see the country on the cover of a Lonely Planet or Frommers.

Travel memoirs about the Middle Kingdom are on bookstore shelves everywhere, and travelers from all over are now able to share personal photo of their Asian adventures with the world. It is not surprising that the tourism industry would thrive so well in China. The country is filled with endless wonders. From the Great Wall to the Terracotta Army, and from sprawling mountain valleys to neon metropolises, there is something here for everyone. Forty years ago, no one could have ever predicted how much wealth this country was capable of generating. Chairman Mao certainly didn't see it. And he definitely did not foresee the irony that preceded his death. It is amusing how the man who detested tourism would one day become a tourist attraction, as a preserved body on display for capitalistic gains.


Lew, Alan, et al. Tourism in China. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Hospitality Press 2003.
Liang, C., Guo, R., Wang, Q. China's International Tourism under Economic Transition: National Trends and Regional Disparities. University of Vermont, 2003.
Wen, Julie. Tourism and China's Development: Policies, Regional Economic Growth and Ecotourism. River Edge, NJ: World Scientific Publishing Co. 2001.
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Zhou, Ping. "Tourism Development in China." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, Zhou, Ping. (2017, March 3). Tourism Development in China. Retrieved from Zhou, Ping. "Tourism Development in China." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 23, 2018).