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Green light given, next stop: Europe
Chen Jinghui has figured out the backdrop for the next photo in her travel album - the magnificent Eiffel Tower in Paris, the city of love.
The 26-year-old editor at a Beijing-based media organization has travelled abroad at least once or twice a year in the past five years; and one trip which stands out is one to tropical Thailand during last year's Spring Festival.
Upon graduation from a university in the capital, Chen, landed her current job and earns about 7,000 yuan (US$850) a month.
"I like to relax in the exotic atmosphere in foreign countries, as my office work is routine and boring," Chen says.
Now, there are more places to choose from for Chen and her boyfriend after China and the European Union signed a milestone accord earlier February facilitating Chinese group tourism to Europe.
"I'm looking forward to having romantic pictures taken in front of the Eiffel Tower," says Chen with a smile.
The agreement makes it easier for Chinese tourists going through selected travel agencies to travel in EU countries. Simplified procedures will benefit those who apply for tourist visas from EU member states which have secured the Chinese Government's Approved Destination Status (ADS).
With the visas issued by the consular offices of these member states, Chinese tourist groups will be allowed to travel freely within the countries.
Ireland and Britain - which have a special status in Europe - are currently negotiating similar ADS agreements with the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA). Denmark signed the agreement in this regard with China yesterday.
All this means good news for people of Wang's generation who prefer to splurge on leisure and entertainment, instead of saving as their parents did - and outbound travel is the rage.
Chinese outbound tourists reached 20 million last year - of whom 14.8 million travelled on their own - up 21.7 per cent over the previous year.
In the face of such a huge potential market, EU countries obviously don't want to miss out on the "new commercial opportunities" in the words of EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten.
Several European countries' tourism departments and companies have been trying hard to attract Chinese tourists, staging exhibitions and some setting up offices in Beijing and Shanghai, in the past few years.
In 2002, 645,000 Chinese tourists travelled to the EU through various channels, whereas 1.3 million European tourists visited China.
It is expected that the ADS agreement will generate significant numbers of Chinese tourists to Europe and foster closer EU-China people-to-people links.
"Many Chinese visitors may select the EU as their destination in the coming years for Europe's rich cultural heritage and very different lifestyles and customs from Asian countries, and there are dozens of convenient non-stop flights between China and the EU," says Liu Wuxiong, managing director of the Outbound Travel Department of the China International Travel Service (CITS), the national flagship travel agency.
"We are going to organize tourist groups to EU countries as soon as local travel agencies there are ready," says Liu, who worked at the CITS office in Madrid between 1996 and 2000.
Liu estimates the peak season of travel to EU countries would be the summer and the week-long National Day holiday in October. And it is forecast the per capita visitor expenditure would be more than 10,000 yuan (US$1,200), as the minimum daily expenses for each person would not be less than 100 euros (US$130).
The pact also provides more opportunities for airlines.
"We are hopefully to take more Chinese tourists to Finland and other European countries," says Mikko Rautio, general manager of Finnair China.
Finnair started flights to Shanghai last September; and from this summer, it will operate daily flights from Beijing, five weekly from Shanghai, and three weekly from Hong Kong, making for a weekly total of 15.
European travel agencies in China will not, for now, be able to offer Europe tours directly to Chinese tourists, but they are natural partners of Chinese travel agencies for organizing accommodation, transport, visits and other services in their countries.
Before the signing of the accord, some EU countries' governments worried about illegal-immigration operators using tourist groups as one of their channels into western Europe, which is one reason why the negotiations on ADS took several years, insiders say.
The agreement addresses the concern - making provisions for the repatriation of anyone who overstays.
But amid all the hype and excitement of the EU pact, some doubt that Chinese tourists will be flocking to Europe in any great numbers.
Apart from the EU countries, CNTA has approved 29 as ADS countries but about half of them are not easily accessible.
Limited tourism resources
For example, travel agencies are reluctant to organize tours to Cuba, which has very good tourism resources and is on the ADS list, because there is no non-stop flight - which would make travel expensive and leave little profit.
Pakistan, also an ADS country, is not far but few agencies show interest in the country, which they say "lacks good tourism resources."
Some worry that Chinese tourists may be put off by high cost of travel in the EU but Zhang Guangrui, director and professor of the Tourism Research Centre of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, brushes aside the apprehension, citing the huge individual foreign-exchange savings of many Chinese citizens. Of China's US$340 billion in foreign-exchange reserves, individual savings accounted for US$90 billion by the end of June 2003.
"The tourism authority should provide more clear information for the development of outbound tourism so as to meet people's increasing desire of travelling abroad," Zhang says.
In the past years, CNTA has formulated clear policies to develop inbound tourism - encouraging overseas tourists to visit China. But for outbound tourism, its policy has been somewhat ambiguous and has therefore not facilitated outbound travels, according to Zhang.
"Without balanced development of the tourism industry, without a developed outbound tourism market, there cannot be sustainable development in Chinese tourism," Zhang adds.
Chen would probably second that.
China opened up
outbound tourism in 1990, when the CNTA announced Singapore, Malaysia and
Thailand were the first countries to get ADS status. Two years later, Japan and
Russia joined the
Ireland are expected to soon sign separate ADS MOUs with China. Denmark signed
the MOU with China just on February 26.