The World Tourism Organization says it's inevitable: China will become the world's No. 1 travel destination by 2020. With SARS in check and a reputation as a safe destination, China is back in the economic forefront. According to an article in The Economist, China is “hailed as the business opportunity of the century…because it profoundly affects the fortunes of companies everywhere. Chinese-based manufacturers suck in imports and dictate global prices of everything from steel to microchips. For foreign companies, a huge market beckons as China liberalizes its relations with the rest of the world.” According to the article, China's real gross domestic product has expanded at an average of 9 percent a year for the past 25 years, and its economy is now the sixth-largest in the world.

Political Stability Ensured

Economic growth has led to political stability, the article goes on to say. “China's leaders still call themselves communists, but they have become capitalists in practice. …One businessman…calls the phenomenon “future shock” — change so rapid that it seems like a vision of the future. Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, predicts that by 2040 China will overtake America as the world's biggest economy.”

Boeing announced greatly increased Asia production for the next 20 years for airlines in China to meet the demand of both domestic and international travel. Insurance companies, too, are hungrily looking at the China market. AIG recently purchased a large Beijing company.

Some of the corporate sponsors of this year's Athens Olympics are said to be looking to Beijing for 2008, where new roads and venues are already being built. The country will be showcased as a leader, not a follower. “If you'd gone to China 10 years ago, you'd have been run over by a bicycle. Now you can't move for BMWs,” says one frequent visitor.

What About Meetings and Incentives?

Where business travelers go, meetings are sure to follow. Since 1997, the number of five-star hotels in China has risen from 57 to 282, according to the China National Tourism Administration. The economic growth has spawned a nouveau riche, a sector of society that appreciates fine dining and shopping. And restaurants and bargain hunting have only added to China's richness as an incentive destination. A new partnership might help that niche: The Beijing Tourism Administration has formed China — The Luxury Partnership, with six five-star hotels in Beijing (Beijing Shangri-La, China World, Kerry Center, Grand Hotel Beijing, Great Wall Sheraton, and Kunlun); three five-star hotels in Shanghai (Grand Hyatt, Westin, and Hua Ting); two five-star cruise ships on the Yangtze; and China International Travel Service, a destination management company.

Last fall, 100 incentive and travel buyers from around the world visited Beijing. “They were stunned by the the professionalism of the people and the safety of the city,” says David Spain, president of Travel Trade Marketing (USA), and the U.S. office of the Luxury Partnership, Frisco, Texas. “People had perceived Beijing to be dull and drab. After seeing it first-hand, they couldn't believe how fun and cosmopolitan it was.”