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China's Numbers Game

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By Arnie Weissmann

TravelpulseBEIJING -- Many of the speakers here at the World Travel and Tourism Global Summit were salivating so heavily at the thought of the money to be made in China that it was best not to sit in the first few rows. 

China appears to be the type of ground-floor opportunity that is irresistible. Over the course of the two-day summit, the case was made convincingly that the Chinese economy will overtake that of the U.S. in 2027. By then, more than a billion Chinese will enter the middle class and will begin traveling as middle-class Americans and Europeans now do. 

Even a single-digit market share of that potential business, domestic or outbound, represents a massive fortune. 

Can something that seems this good actually be too good to be true? Will it really happen? 

I do think the Chinese economy will grow as predicted, and some people will get very rich as a result. But let me also play wet blanket for just a few paragraphs and at least make note of a point of view that wasn't discussed at the summit. 

At least, not at this summit. 

Two years ago at the WTTC Summit in Dubai, Kjell Nordstrom, an associate professor at the Stockholm School of Economics, made a prediction about which nation would dominate the 21st century. 

He first played to the global audience's fatigue with the administration of George W. Bush; the U.S. was the punch line of many of his jokes. 

So it was a surprise when, in conclusion, he stated that the U.S. -- not China -- would dominate for another 100 years. 

The U.S. is more an idea than a country, he said. If someone moves to Sweden, it doesn't matter how long they live there, they will never be Swedish. Nor will you become Italian by virtue of living in Italy for 30 or 40 years. Nor Chinese in China. 

He pointed out that while the U.S. collects more Nobel prizes than any other country, a significant portion of the winners were not born in the U.S. But they moved there, became Americans in short order and were accepted as Americans by others. America, Nordstrom said, is a meritocracy, and will always attract the best and the brightest from other countries. 

The argument appeals to my patriotism, and my guess is that being a meritocracy will certainly help America, but ultimately it's hard to argue against the numbers. 

Guy Rubin, who owns the upscale tour operation Imperial Tours, told me over breakfast last week, "I think it was Bill Gates who said that even if you're one in a million, in China, there are a thousand of you." 

In other words, there's no shortage of talent in China, even if some intellectual capital does siphon off to the U.S. 

Given a little time, I'm sure the Chinese will be able to make the travel experience better and better, even on a mass scale. China is no utopia, but I find it's hard to maintain my wet blanket posture for long. Heavy salivation notwithstanding.

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