tourism

Australia is the fastest-growing Western tourism market for China. And they are spending big.

New figures from the China National Tourism Administration show that 770,000 Australians travelled to China last year, for a growth rate of 6.7 per cent and worth an estimated $1 billion for the Chinese economy. Just over half of the travellers were tourists , 18 per cent were heading to China for business, and the final 26 per cent included expat workers and those travelling for family reunions.

Beijing Tourism Commissioner Zhao Guangchao said compared with growth from other major western markets, which has seen the US's share of travellers increase by 0.1 per cent, Britain by 3.8 per cent and Germany 3.5 per cent, ''Australia is becoming one of China's most valued sources of international visitors''.

And fortunately for the Australian economy, Australia is also very attractive for Chinese tourists, with China at present Australia's second largest inbound market after New Zealand. In the 12 months to October, 719,200 Chinese visitors arrived in Australia, an annual increase of 17.3 per cent, delivering $4.5 billion for the Australian economy.

Tourism Australia projects that by 2020 that figure will grow to over $9 billion. But beyond catching a glimpse of the Great Wall and the famed terracotta warriors, what is behind Australia's growing fascination with a holiday in China?

China commentator and founder of Chinese research website Red Door Asia Marcus Reubenstein says that along with the proximity of China to Australia and a culture that is therefore relatively familiar to Australians, the growth can largely be attributed to the country's rapidly expanding airlines.

''Air China, China Southern and China Eastern airlines all have daily flights from Sydney to major Chinese cities,'' he said.

''Australian tourists are taking advantage of relatively cheap fares, and are often using China as a stopover on the way to Europe.''

Wendy Wu, owner of Wendy Wu Tours, Australia's largest tour operator to China, has experienced the popularity rise on her tours. In 1994, she took just 16 passengers to China, This year she took 10,000.

''I think it helps that there are so many Chinese in Australia,'' Ms Wu said. ''The majority of our customers say they want to go to China because their Chinese neighbours, friends, relatives and colleagues have talked about it and said they had a wonderful time there.''