Americans and Germans, the top spenders on overseas travel for years, were overtaken by mainlanders last year, according to a United Nations report released in Madrid on Thursday.
China ranked just seventh in terms of international tourism expenditure in 2005, but by 2011 had leapfrogged Italy, Japan, France and Britain. However, the Chinese were still in third spot that year, spending US$72.6 billion on overseas travel, behind the table-topping Germans, who spent US$85.9 billion, and the Americans, who outlayed US$78.7 billion.
That all turned changed last year when Chinese spending jumped a surprising 40 per cent to US$102 billion, while there was only modest growth from US tourists and a decline in German spending.
The report by the UN's World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) attributed the rapid growth of China's spending on overseas travel to the appreciation of the yuan and the country's rapid economic development, which had sped up urbanisation, raised disposable incomes and led to the relaxation of government restriction on foreign travel.
While Germans and Americans were still willing to spend on overseas holidays, some other nationalities were less enthusiastic. British tourists spent less last year than they did in 2005, while the Japanese barely increased their spending in the same period. The French recorded one of the biggest slides among developed nations with a 6 per cent decline.
However, the number of tourists from emerging markets such as Russia and Brazil has been growing in leaps and bounds, the UNWTO said, with Russians spending 61 per cent more last year than in 2005 and Brazilians spending 35 per cent more.
It said most of the 83 million mainland tourists who went overseas last year were members of the middle class. UNWTO secretary general Taleb Rifai said the impressive growth from China "reflects the entry into the tourism market of a growing middle class". Such a trend "will surely continue to change the map of world tourism", he said.
Though their average budget exceeded US$1,000, some Chinese tourists left an impression of thriftiness overseas. There have been many reports by mainland media in recent years about compatriots taking mountains of food from buffets and pilfering blankets, headphones, forks and spoons from aircraft.
But Li Li, a Beijing pianist who worked as a part-time tour guide while she was studying in France, said what really annoyed people in host countries was Chinese extravagance.
"My worst nightmare was the swarm of Chinese tourists in luxury shops," she said. "It happened more than once that my clients took out a stack of €500 bills to buy the most expensive item in a shop. To the locals, they showed neither taste nor respect.
"American, Japanese and French tourists all have some unpleasant behaviour, but my compatriots have outdone them all in some areas, such as snapping their fingers at a waitress in a restaurant or leaving behind piles of trash in public areas."