Mainland China may have the world's largest outbound tourism market but most of the tourists are going only to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. Last year, the number of outbound trips made by mainland Chinese crossed the 100 million mark for the first time to reach 109 million, according to the National Tourism Administration. But 70 per cent of the trips were to these three destinations. Taiwan accounted for 3.98 million trips, according to visitor numbers recorded by Taiwan's tourism bureau. Both by traveller numbers and spending, mainland China has been the world's largest outbound tourism market since 2012, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. It says the 2013 outbound travel penetration of the mainland Chinese population was just 7.6 per cent, and 59 per cent of those travelling abroad were doing it for the first time. The low base creates tremendous potential as tourist numbers are expected to see rapid growth in coming years with the increase of disposable income among the country's middle class, which is as big as the United States population. Most mainland Chinese travellers do not travel beyond Asia, which accounted for up to 89.5 per cent of the 109 million trips. The most popular destination countries are South Korea, Thailand, Japan, the US, Vietnam and Singapore. Tourist numbers to Japan tend to fluctuate in line with swings in the Sino-Japan relations, although visits to Korea and Japan increased more than 40 per cent last year. Europe is the most popular destination outside Asia, receiving 3.5 per cent of the trips. Africa, at 3 per cent, comes second, beating the Americas, at 2.7 per cent. Apart from economic growth and growing prosperity, removal of travel restrictions has been the most important factor in boosting air travel. Overseas travel once used to be a rarity in China. Even as recently as the 1990s, few people could afford to travel overseas. After the Apec meeting in October last year, the US started offering mainland Chinese passport holders multiple-entry visas valid for 10 years, a major boost for overseas travel as well as for the US as a destination. An agreement between Beijing and Taipei in 2008 to open up direct travel across the strait removed a major hurdle in place since 1949 that allowed travel only through a third place - most commonly Hong Kong. Mainland Chinese authorities also gradually relaxed restrictions on group or individual travel to Taiwan, allowing people from more provinces to apply for permission to travel there. As a result, mainland Chinese tourist numbers have grown exponentially over the past five years from about 55,000 in 2008 to just under 4 million now. Bank of America Merrill Lynch forecasts total spending of mainland China's international travellers will reach US$264 billion by 2019, from US$164 billion last year.