As China's rapid growth continues to fuel speculation about its future status as a global economic power, one truly global industry is now contemplating the giant on the horizon.
By Tom Butler
BBC News Online
International travel and tourism operators are eyeing China as a huge source of travellers. It is a country with over a billion people - and because of the economic boom, they are getting richer.
According to the World Tourism Organisation (WTO), the number of tourists leaving China has risen by a million every year since 1998.
100 million Chinese are expected to jet abroad by 2020
By 2001 over 12 million Chinese were taking holidays abroad. The WTO estimates that by 2020, 100 million Chinese tourists will be on the move every year, and China will have become the fourth largest source of world travellers.
Most of their overseas trips are to other Asian destinations, but that may be about to change.
CHINA'S TOP DESTINATIONS (2000)
4 South Korea
7 North Korea
"China has potential in equalling America as a source of tourists for Europe, simply because of the huge size of the population," said Tom Jenkins, Executive Director of the European Tour Operators Association.
Chinese tourists are drawn to Europe by its diversity. Mr Jenkins called it a "power destination, a place you have to visit once in your life."
Visiting should also become easier, since European Union (EU) and Chinese officials met in Beijing in October to thrash out an agreement to ease the passage of Chinese tourists into the European market.
For the EU that means making it easier for the Chinese to get visas. But it also means the Chinese have to grant what is known as Approved Destination Status (ADS) to particular countries. Only then are they allowed to promote their tours in China.
The two sides now have a so-called "memorandum of understanding" that they will work towards a final agreement which will take effect early next year.
And the European Union has quite a lot of catching up to do.
Frankfurt in Germany is one of the favoured destinations
Germany is the only country to have made the top ten destinations visited by Chinese travellers in the year 2000, and it has since been granted ADS independently from the rest of the EU.
Germany hosted over 110,000 Chinese tourists - well short of the 700,000 Chinese people who visited Thailand.
For Shi Xiang, Director of the China Tourism Office in London, improving provisions for Chinese travellers is essential.
"It would be better if they had more Chinese tour guides," he said, although he was impressed on a recent visit to Windsor Castle, near London, to have been greeted by a guide in perfect Mandarin.
Mr Shi had few doubts about what had drawn Chinese travellers westwards.
"Europe has so many big attractions... it is the big difference between East and West - a culture shock. When they go to Europe everything is interesting," he said.
European companies are working hard to capture their imagination.
Chinese tourists appear to prefer city visits to other types of holidays, so tour operators are targeting China with fast city-hopping tours.
"Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam are the most popular destinations at the moment and shopping is the number one interest," said Bernard Bialylew, Managing director of Gullivers Travel Associates, South East Asia.
His company has already tapped into the Chinese market, handling about 6,000 tourists a year, often linked to business visits.
CHINA'S FOREIGN TRAVELLERS
None before 1990
Rising by 12.5% a year
40% choose city tours
One million go to Europe
100 million worldwide by 2020
Mr Bialylew said that his company and others were adapting accordingly: "We have Chinese speaking staff in every office, we are strengthening our infrastructure to make sure it can handle a massive influx of passengers, all booking at the last minute and still expecting perfect services. Our websites are in Chinese too."
Mandarin guides may soon be a common sight alongside guides in English, Japanese and French at popular tourist attractions.
And soon, the Chinese will even have more time to travel, as the government proposes to introduce paid holidays for workers over the next five years.
That, combined with increasing wealth and an easing of travel restrictions, is making it easier for them to see the World - as travellers from a new tourist superpower.