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Middle Kingdom 'best under heaven'

By CNN's Marianne Bray

2001: 7.3 percent
2002: 8.0 percent
2003: 9.3 percent
2004: 9.5 percent
2005: 8.0 percent (est.)
Source: IMF
Beijing (China)
World Tourism Organization

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- On the 83-kilometer ferry journey towards the town of Yangshuo, in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, our guide for the day pulled us aside to introduce the wonders of the Li River.

Puffing on his "Best under Heaven" cigarettes and taking a swig of his "Li Spring" beer, Zhoug Liu listed a number of superlatives, taking pause between each one.

"Blue jade hills... green silk water... hidden caves... mysterious rocks. The mountains and waters of Guilin are the best under heaven," he said as he gestured past the "Yearning-for-Husband's-Return Rock."

"This landscape is not for China but for the world."

Guilin, land of karst (limestone) peaks and misty vistas immortalized in paintings for centuries, is just one of the Middle Kingdom's many tourist hot spots.

From the green paddy fields and misty hills in the south, to the mountains of Tibet and scorched desert of the old Silk Road in the northwest, the world's fourth largest country is flinging open its treasures to tourists.

In 2004, 109 million tourists flocked into China to see, among other things, such World Heritage sites as The Great Wall, the Zhoukoudian Home of Peking man, the Mogao Grottoes and the Terracotta Warriors and Horses.

With 28 cultural and natural relics on the list, China ranks third behind Spain and Italy, drawing tourists en masse who are keen to get a glimpse of this once secretive and mighty nation.

Last year experts say China likely passed Italy to become the world's fourth largest receiver of tourists. Its $25.7 billion revenue in foreign exchange surpassed that of Germany and Britain to rank fifth in the world, according to the National Tourism Administration.

And demand looks so hot that the World Tourism Organization predicts that by 2020, China will surpass France as the world's top tourist destination, attracting 130 million visitors annually.

All but closed

For centuries China stood as a leading civilization, outpacing the rest of the world in sciences and the arts.

But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was plagued by famines, civil unrest, military defeats and foreign occupation.

After World War II, Mao Zedong's communists set up an autocratic socialist system that, while ensuring China's sovereignty, imposed strict controls on everyday life.

China's borders were all but closed to outsiders, and nationals were restricted from traveling from one province to another, let alone outside of the country.

That all changed when key reform architect Deng Xiaoping urged leaders in Beijing in 1978 to forge ahead to make China a "tourism power."

Since then China has become such a desirable destination that the World Travel and Tourism Council said in a 2003 report it could become a "mass tourism economy unlike any the world has ever seen."

In 1996, 51 million tourists visited China. By 2004, that had doubled to more than 100 million, a figure the World Tourism Organization predicted would only be reached in 2010 at the earliest.

Japanese topped the list of visitors, followed by South Koreans, Russians and Americans.

The new China

Domestic travel is on the rise as well. After years of isolation and strict travel laws, more and more of China's 1.3 billion people are exploring their own nation, making 860 million trips within China in 2002, three times as many as in 1990.

Buoyed by the government's new Golden Week holidays in May and October and by rising incomes, Chinese are seeking fresh adventures they have never got to experience before.

As Beijing keeps on easing restrictions on travel to selected nations, including Thailand, Australia and Germany, Chinese are venturing beyond their borders.

In 2003, Chinese for the first time overtook the Japanese as Asia's biggest travelers, making 20.2 million visits abroad, according to China's tourism administration. In 2004, that had jumped to nearly 29 million.

Amid the spectacular forecasts, the WTTO has warned that "staggering effort" is needed to make China a "world-class tourism economy."

The group, a private organization that represents hotel and travel companies, says China must overhaul its tourism administration and boost investment and private partnerships.

In an example of such a partnership, Hong Kong's government teamed up with Disney to build a Disneyland at Penny Bay, Lantau Island, which is set to open in September this year.

Hong Kong's leader at the time, Tung Chee-hwa, said the theme park would ensure the territory of 6.8 million people becomes a favorite destination and would strengthen its "world city" status.

Experts say mainland China's coming of age can be seen in the way the capital Beijing is gearing up for the 2008 Olympics and the commercial city of Shanghai is getting set for the World Expo in 2010.

China's leaders are not setting their sights low. Tourism officials told an industry conference in Shanghai they want 210 million visitors a year by 2020, and $58 billion in revenue.

That's almost double the figure predicted by the World Tourism Organization.

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