A surge in tourism and domestic travel in China will create jobs and boost consumption but also poses a challenge as the country struggles to provide the necessary infrastructure, tourism officials said.
China hosted 124 million visitors in 2006, including travelers from Hong Kong who accounted for more than half, and earned $33.5 billion from tourism, according to the China National Tourist Office.
By 2015 it is set to become the world's top tourist destination, attracting 200 million visitors annually.
Growth, however, is already creating surging demand for hotels, transport and other tourism-related services, which is aggravated by rising domestic tourism, officials said.
"We're putting an emphasis on tourism so we can increase domestic consumption and increase living standards," Shao Qiwei, chairman of the China National Tourism Administration, told a conference in Hong Kong.
Beijing has targeted growth in domestic consumption as a way to balance its economy and reduce its reliance on exports.
Growth in tourism will create more than 18 million jobs in China in the next decade, according to Pacific Asia Travel Association, including much-needed jobs in rural areas where the government is encouraging tourism projects.
Shao said that, while Americans travel on average seven times a year, Chinese now make only one domestic trip a year, but that would probably rise to two within a decade, or 2.6 billion trips.
"Vacation travelling is becoming a trend," Shao said. "But there's an imbalance between supply and demand. We don't have enough trained staff and we are nowhere near able to meet demand for tourism services."
International hotel chains such as Holiday Inn, which is owned by InterContinental Hotels Group Plc, are expanding fast.
Holiday Inn plans to nearly double the number of its hotels in China to 125 by the end of next year, according to Chinese media, while Accor, Europe's largest hotelier, aims to have up to 160 hotels in operation or under development in the country by 2010, up from 103 at present.
A potential oversupply of luxury hotels in Beijing and Shanghai is prompting hoteliers to switch their focus to the lower end of the market and to smaller up-and-coming cities, but development may not be fast enough.
Next year's Beijing Olympics is expected to generate a tourism boom in China with half a million foreign and domestic visitors.