Page last updated at 10:16 GMT, Thursday, 8 January 2009

China tourism 'hit by downturn'

Crowds of tourists visit the National Stadium in Beijing
Tourists to the Olympics fell short of the government's 500,000 estimate

The number of people visiting China fell by 2% last year - the first fall in five years, official data showed.

Visitor numbers dropped to 130 million in 2008 - down by two million - as a result of the economic crisis, China's National Tourism Administration said.

Analysts say increased security measures put in place for the Beijing Olympics may also have had an impact.

The number of foreign tourists to Beijing in August fell far short of the government's estimated 500,000.

Beijing received 389,000 foreign tourists in August, including visitors from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, according to the city's tourism bureau.

Tougher visa requirements ahead of the Games and a 100,000-strong anti-terror force may have dampened demand.

Natural disasters

"All major inbound source markets, except for Hong Kong and Russia, slumped last year amid the economic downturn," said the tourism administration's chief, Shao Qiwei, quoted by the state-run China Daily.

Neither the tourism agency nor the newspaper referred to any other factors that may have affected travel to China other than the economic climate.

However, in a statement in November, China's tourism agency said "a series of serious natural disasters and sudden incidents" also affected the growth of tourism.

This was likely to be a reference to last year's snow storms in southern China, the Sichuan earthquake that left 90,000 people dead or missing, and the fatal riots in Tibet.

Mr Shao said "the inbound tourism sector is facing a considerable challenge this year", but that his department was still forecasting a 1.5% growth in visitors.

The government is counting on domestic travel to give the tourism industry a boost in 2009.

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