Thanks to its high mountains, elegant rivers, springs and waterfalls, rich and varied folk customs and styles, rare animals and plants, numerous scenic spots and historical sites, distinctive operas, music and dances, and its world-renowned cuisine, China attracts a large number of domestic and foreign tourists every year. Today, China has one of the largest domestic tourism markets in the world and an outbound tourism market with the highest rate of growth in the world.
In 2003, the major economic index of China's tourism experienced the first decrease since the 1990s. The outbreak of SARS is the direct cause for the heavy losses in China's tourism. Starting from May 1, 2003, the Ministry of Finance, the State Taxation Administration and other related departments took measures to reduce or exempt taxes, and to issue subsidized loans to tourism and other related trades. The practice lasted till the end of 2003. In the third season after the SARS crisis was over, the domestic tourism market quickly began to pick up, and the incoming tourist trade also resumed. By the end of September, the number of incoming tourists increased 2.17 percent over the same period of 2002, turning the tide of six-month-decrease starting in March 2003. As of October, the number of incoming tourists surpassed that of the same period in the previous year, so tourism income began to increase.
As for outbound tourism, the Chinese government has approved 59 countries and regions as tourist destinations for Chinese citizens traveling at their own expense, among which 28 destinations can be reached through formal travel agencies. According to the World Tourist and Travel Council ("WTTC"), China's tourist and tourism industry may grow by an annual rate of 10.4 percent in the following 10 years, and that will rank China fourth in the world in terms of the tourism industry. The World Tourism Organization predicts that by 2020 China will become the No. 1 tourist destination in the world and the fourth in the number of tourists traveling abroad.
Helping to guide visitors to many fine Chinese hotels and restaurants and other tourism services are some 1,349 travel agencies that handle China's international travel business —— among which 248 are located in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing. In a country with some 8,880 star-rated hotels, China in all its large and medium-sized cities and tourist sites has hotels with complete facilities and excellent services for both domestic and international tourists.
On June 12, 2003, the China National Tourism Administration and the Ministry of Commerce put forth a joint Interim Regulations on the Establishment of Foreign-Holding or Foreign-Funded Travel Agencies. On July 18, 2003, the China National Travel Administration approved the registration of the JALPAK International China Co. Ltd. as the first foreign-funded travel company to enter China's tourist market. The company has started operations in Beijing, mainly handling the travel business of Japanese tourists in China. On December 1, 2003, the first overseas-controlled joint venture in China's tourism industry Ñ TUI China Travel Company —— was formally established in Beijing. The holding party is the largest European travel group TUI and Martin Buese China Limited. Their Chinese partner is China Travel Service that has a network of over 300 local offices.
To better introduce China's tourist resources to domestic and foreign tourists, the China National Tourism Administration has promoted a tourism theme every year. The year of 1992 was named "Friendly Sightseeing Year." Following that was "Landscape Tour," "Tour of Cultural Relics and Historical Sites," "Folk Customs Tour," "Holiday Tour," and "Ecological Environment Tour." From 2000 to 2003, the tourism themes were "Century Year," "Health and Fitness of China," "Folk Arts of China," and "Culinary Kingdom of China." The theme of 2004 is "Catch the Lifestyle," to welcome tourists from abroad to get in touch with real Chinese society and gain first-hand experience of people's life.
Popular Tourist Destinations
—— Natural Sites: the mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers and wetlands of China
Mount Taishan in the east, Mount Hengshan in the south, Mount Huashan in the west, Mount Hengshan in the north, and Mount Songshan in the center of China are known as the country's five sacred Daoist mountains. Mount Taishan meandering through central Shandong Province while not the highest is admired by Chinese as the first of these mountains. Another mountain celebrated for its beauty is Mount Huangshan in southern Anhui Province, known for its graceful pines, unusual rocks, sea of clouds and hot springs.
Jiuzhaigou, Huangguoshu Waterfalls, and Guilin are all located in southwestern China. Jiuzhaigou in northern Sichuan Province is a beautiful valley stretching over 40 km in snow-covered mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and forest. The Huangguoshu Waterfalls in Guizhou Province consist of a group of 18 above-ground and four underground waterfalls. The Lijiang River in Guangxi Province has a section of 82 km between Guilin and Yangsuo, which winds its way through karst peaks.
On the plateau in northern China are many spectacular lakes. The Tianchi (Heavenly Pool) in the Tianshan Mountains in Xinjiang Autonomous Region is 1,980 meters above sea level. This 105-m-deep lake is crystal clear, surrounded by high mountains covered with green grass and colorful flowers.
Along the renowned Three Gorges of the Yangtze River are many scenic spots and historical sites. The Qutang Gorge is rugged and majestic. The Wuxia Gorge is elegant, deep and secluded. The Xiling Gorge has many shoals and swift torrents, with a lot of reefs. The Lesser Three Gorges is lush with vegetation around water so clear you can see to the bottom.
China's wetlands include 10 percent of all the wetlands in the world. These wetland areas not only are vital to the earth's ecology but also are attractive places for eco-tourism for visitors interested in birding and fishing and observing other wildlife. For example, Dalian National Spotted Seal (Phoca vitulina) Nature Reserve, Liaoning, a coastal area along the Bohai Sea, near Dalian City is the habitat of 100 species of fish and numerous shellfish, as well as breeding grounds for a number of whale and dolphin species. Many tourists from the nearby city and elsewhere visit especially to see its population of spotted seal, an endangered species.
— Historical and Cultural Sites
The Great Wall, a symbol of the Chinese nation, also is a prime example of China's historical sites that have become major tourist attractions. As the greatest defense-structure project in the history of human civilization, it dates back more than 2,000 years ago to the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods. Today there are 10 sections of the Great Wall open to tourists, including the passes, blockhouses and beacon towers at Badaling in Beijing, Laolongtou in Hebei Province, and Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu Province.
Grottoes filled with rock paints and sculpture are concentrated along the ancient Silk Road in Gansu Province in the West of China. Perhaps the best known is the Mogao Caves, a "treasure house of oriental art" with 492 caves with murals and statues on the cliff face. In the south, grotto art is represented in Sichuan Province by the Leshan Giant Buddha, carved into a cliff face. At 71 meters high and 28 meters wide, it is the largest sitting Buddha built of stone.
One of the many religious sites in every region of China that welcomes tourists is the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, the birthplace of Chinese Zen Buddhism first built in 495 and famous for its Shaolin gongfu. In Hubei Province, beautiful Wudang Mountain is a sacred site of Daoism, with excellent examples of Daoist temple architecture. In western Sichuan Province, Mount Emei is one of the four holy Buddhist mountains in China (the others are Mount Putuo in Zhejiang Province, Mount Wutai in Shanxi Province, Mount Jiuhua in Anhui Province ) dotted with ancient Buddhist temples and monasteries.
The 100 Chinese historical and cultural cities - most over 1,000 years old — under key state protection are especially popular among tourists. They include the capital cities chosen by the emperors of various dynasties, politically and economically important cities during ancient times, places where important historical events took place, cities enjoying great reputations for their rare cultural relics and historical remains, and those famous for exquisite art works. Examples of these sites are the ancient city of Lijiang in Yunnan Province and the ancient city of Pingyao in Shanxi Province. Lijiang lies in the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, a city known for its cobbled streets and canals; the walled-city of Pingyao (its city wall was built in the Zhou Dynasty) is preserved today as it was hundreds of years ago. Both are on the United Nations World Cultural Heritage List. Aside from cities, it would be hard to find any other place in the world with as many ancient villages as China, a traditionally large agricultural country. Xidi and Hongcun villages at the foot of Mount Huangshan in southern Anhui Province were added to the World Cultural Heritage List in 2000, and just a 15-minute drive south of Xidi is the village of Nanping, where scenes from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" were filmed in courtyard buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
— Festivals: Regional and Folk Culture Sites
The festivals of China's 56 ethnic groups welcome visitors. The biggest Tibetan festival — Shoton (Yogurt) Festival — is also the setting of the Tibetan Theatrical Festival. Every year in the five days starting from June 30 by the Tibetan calendar, major Tibetan theatrical sects gather in Norbulingka (the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas) to hold performances and competitions.
The Nadam Fair in the grasslands is celebrated by Mongolians in the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Attractions include competitions in wrestling, horse racing and archery.
The annual festival of "March Street," associated with traditions honoring the Goddess of Mercy, is celebrated in the third month of the lunar year in Dali, Yunnan Province on Diancang Mountain.
The Water-Sprinkling Festival of the Dai ethnic group in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, is a grand and lively occasion in which people chase and pour water on each other among other activities such as a dragon boat race.
Lugu Lake on the plateau in the border area between Sichuan and Yunnan provinces has become a tourist destination following the building of a new highway that gives access to this area. Living around the lake are some 30,000 Mosuo people whose matriarchal society is noted for having preserved traditions such as fishing in dugout canoes.