updated 6/17/2008 11:19:54 AM ET 2008-06-17T15:19:54

Chinese tour groups headed to the U.S. on Tuesday under a new agreement that the American travel industry hopes will bring in billions of dollars.

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An initial group of more than 200 tourists was flying from the cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou for a 12-day visit that will take them to destinations including New York, Washington and Los Angeles. The trips cost about $4,000 each.

Chinese with visas have long been permitted to travel to the U.S. but the agreement signed last December considerably eased the way by conferring China's "approved destination status" on the country.

That allowed Chinese travel agencies to market package tours to American destinations and permitting U.S. destinations to advertise directly to the Chinese public.

"This is my first visit the United States. We're going to visit Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Hawaii," said a 22-year-old college student who gave her name as Miss Yang. "I'm very happy and excited," she said before rushing off to check in for her flight at Beijing's Capital Airport.

Yang said participants had been told they would not be allowed to leave the group at any time during the trip, perhaps reflecting lingering concerns over illegal immigration. U.S. visas are getting easier for Chinese citizens to obtain, with only about 20 percent having their requests rejected, although many still find the process daunting.

Chinese travelers flush with cash from the country's booming economy are highly sought after by the tourism industry, both for their huge numbers and their free-spending ways: Chinese travelers on average spend upward of $6,000 per visit to the U.S. — more than residents of any other nation — according to U.S. Commerce Department calculations.

The U.S. tends to rank at the top of desired foreign destinations, alongside France and Australia, and even without the new agreement, the Commerce Department had predicted the number of Chinese visitors would rise to 579,000 by 2011. Travel industry observers say the number could rise far beyond that.

The only snag to hit arrangements has been the soaring cost of fuel that prompted two airlines to request one-year postponements in the launching of new services to China.

The change affects planned United Airlines service between San Francisco to Guangzhou and US Airways flights between Philadelphia and Beijing.

Access to routes between the U.S. and China is highly competitive because air service between the two countries is restricted by bilateral agreements.

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