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FONTAINEBLEAU, France (AP) -- After the whirl of rush hour traffic, stops for snapshots and a meal of rice, soup and fatty pork, Chen Guolin finally got to relax in the verdant gardens of Chateau Fontainebleau, where Napoleon luxuriated between military campaigns.|
She'd been touched, she said, by the almost accentless "ni hao" -- hello in Chinese -- with which French ground staff welcomed her at Charles de Gaulle airport when her group arrived the previous evening. And she marveled at Fontainebleau's tranquility.
"If this was China, there would be people everywhere," she said.
Above all, her first day ever outside China had taught her a lesson: Just seeing Paris, first stop on a 15-day swing through France and Spain, confirmed to her that her homeland is on the rise.
"I really don't feel as if there's any difference between the outside world and China," said Chen, a construction engineer in a smart navy-blue A-line skirt. "Seeing overseas makes you love your country even more."
Trip by trip, a Chinese tourism revolution is doing as much as diplomacy and billions of dollars of trade to build bridges between China and the West.
Armed with digital cameras and videocams, and still connected to home by their cell phones, Chinese with a pent-up hunger for fresh experiences, cultures and shopping are heading in droves to countries that a few decades back were as inaccessible to most of them as the moon.
Last year, Chinese for the first time overtook Japanese as Asia's biggest travelers, making 20.2 million visits, China's tourism administration says.
Europe is bracing for a Chinese surge following a tourism pact that simplifies visa procedures for Chinese tour groups and allows Chinese travel agents to advertise European destinations.
The impact of the agreement, which went into effect on Sept. 1, promises to be dramatic: France, the world's top tourist destination, expects to attract as many as 1.5 million Chinese next year, from the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 who visited in 2003.
Through travel, Chinese are learning about the world, themselves and their country, and teaching the world a little about China and its march to modernity.
"Apart from the language, I really don't feel like I've left home. The stores are as smart as back home, just more expensive," said Hua Mingwei, a 51-year-old Chinese tourist stocking up on perfume with his wife at the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris.
Their sole gripe: Hotels didn't provide hot drinking water.
"They need to think about catering more to Chinese tastes," said Hua. "We don't drink cold water."
Poverty, history, culture and politics long conspired to delay the advent of mass Chinese tourism, whose effects are now being felt from Paris to Auckland, Las Vegas to Sydney.
As recently as 15 years ago, when cheaper air travel was unlocking the world to Western tourists, the few coming from China were mostly state representatives and people with relatives overseas. For most Chinese, life beyond the Great Wall was glimpsed largely through the prism of television and other media all controlled by a Communist Party long suspicious of the West.
And who could afford foreign travel when telephones, televisions, or even bicycles were luxuries? Getting passports was a bureaucratic obstacle course. The government wasn't keen on travelers squandering precious hard currency overseas and returning - if they returned at all - with dazzling tales of the West's luxuries and freedoms.
Capitalist reforms and stunning economic growth have brought skiing in Korea, golfing in Nevada, shopping in Tokyo and dining in France within reach of millions of middle-class Chinese.
They still call China "Zhongguo," the Middle Kingdom, center of the world. But as well as cars and IKEA furniture, they want albums of souvenir photos from overseas and are the targets of ads like this one in the Shanghai Morning Post: "Seclusion in a castle, in the forest, in a log cabin. Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg. Eight Days for Five European Countries for under 10,000 yuan!"
That's US$1,210, roughly what Hu Jie likely paid for the Japanese camera with which he merrily shot photos at Fontainebleau. A manager with a Chinese air conditioning firm, he's an experienced traveler, having previously worked in France. He led the group of 22 people that included Chen, the engineer.
The day began with introductions to their bus driver, Andrew. "An-de-lu. An-de-lu," some of the visitors murmured, memorizing his name.
Talk then quickly turned to life in Europe as Paris rolled past the windows. But these were hard customers. Last night's hotel wasn't up to the standards of those in China, said one. The streets are cleaner at home, said another. And the Champs-Elysees, which the French call the world's most beautiful boulevard? Not as wide as the Avenue of Heavenly Peace that scythes through Beijing, they scoffed.
"China's got 5,000 years of history. When you travel overseas, you realize that other countries can't compete," said Song Deliang, on his second trip to Europe.
By 2020, the World Tourism Organization predicts, Chinese will be the world's fourth most prolific travelers, taking 100 million trips, trailing the U.S., Germany and Japan, which is expected to make a tourism comeback after a four-year slump.
That makes Chinese a market tourism officials and hoteliers cannot ignore.
"Their economy, their wealth, their ability and their inclination to travel is very, very strong," Bruce Bommarito, executive director of the Nevada Commission on Tourism, said in a telephone interview. He has spent 18 months learning basic Chinese. "It's very important that we stay at the top of the curve," he said.
At least one Novotel in Paris has introduced Chinese TV and restaurant menus, hot drinking water heaters, a Chinese receptionist and breakfasts of rice porridge and noodles.
Chen and others in her group were irritated that Fontainebleau offered no Chinese-language tour or audio guides to steer them through the sumptuous rooms and history. "It's such a shame. We have come such a long way," said Chen.
But Emaury Lefebure, the chateau's director, says free Chinese-language leaflets will be ready for next summer. And thus again, tourism will have built bridges.
"It's important that cultures mix. In the rest of the world, people have no concept of the Chinese. But we're just like everybody else," said Zhang Jiaping, 73, another engineer in Chen's group. "When you travel and meet people, they understand that."