Chinese will soon be able to travel to the United States on tourist visas, according to an agreement signed in Beijing Tuesday.
The memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between the two countries to facilitate outbound tourist group travel grants the US Approved Destination Status (ADS) after years of negotiations, making it the 134th country on China's list.
Chinese travelers will be able to travel in groups as early as in spring. Currently, the US issues only business travel visas.
The China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) said the agreement will, apart from invigorating the tourism industry, provide a strong impetus to bilateral ties in such sectors as the economy, trade and culture.
"The agreement will open a large and growing market for the US travel and tourism industry," US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said Tuesday.
The US Department of Commerce forecast that the number of Chinese visitors would reach 579,000 annually by 2011, up from 320,000 last year.
"We are very excited. We have been waiting for this day to come, and it came sooner than we thought," said Jamie Y. Lee, chief representative of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, the first city-level tourism office established in China.
More US states and cities will likely open offices in China to promote tourism, she said.
According to the MOU, one of the 14 agreements and memoranda signed during the 18th China-US Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, US destinations will get the green light to market themselves in China.
The MOU may be terminated only when significant numbers of group travelers overstay in the US, the Department of Commerce said.
Previously, the worry hindered tourism negotiations, said Li Xinjian, a senior researcher at the school of tourism management affiliated to Beijing International Studies University.
But the increase in the number of Chinese outbound tourists and their rising spending power have made the opening of the US market inevitable.
In the past five years, China has overtaken Japan to become the largest source of outbound travelers in Asia.
Statistics from the US Department of Commerce indicate that the United States attracted 320,000 Chinese travelers in 2006, up 19 percent from the previous year.
Total spending by the Chinese travelers there added up to $2.07 billion last year, up 35 percent year-on-year. The expenditure included accommodation, communications, tickets to tourist spots and shopping.
"It is much higher than the average expenditure of Chinese travelers in other countries and regions," Li said.
CNTA figures for 2006 showed that the average Chinese traveler spent $735, compared with more than $6,400 in the US.
In the long run, tourists' spending will continue to grow, along with the increase in incomes, Li forecast.
The MOU is also good news for the domestic tourism industry.
"The US is an important destination with huge market potential for us," said Dun Jidong, marketing director of the China Travel Service's overseas tourism department.
Before Tuesday's agreement, the US and Canada were the last two major tourism destinations that were closed to Chinese tour groups.