BEIJING — For centuries, Chinese living away from home loyally trekked back to their ancestral villages every Spring Festival. Last month, a record 45 million people hit road, rail and airlines during the seven-day public holiday. The most auspicious date in the lunar calendar is a time for family reunions. Or rather it used to be.

“Everyone still travels at New Year like before,” says Wang Suqi of the China International Travel Service in Beijing. “But now they are wearing the baseball caps of their tour group!”

Mass tourism has become commonplace for the first time in China’s long history. Shunning their filial duties, increasing numbers of Chinese prefer to explore the incredible breadths of their country, the world’s third-largest.

Tours are booming nationwide, from the Tibetan plateau in the west to Russified Harbin in the north and tropical Hainan Island over 3,000 km to the south.

But even these generous boundaries are too restrictive for many. China’s Communist Party leaders may rail against ‘hostile foreign forces” and their imperialist ambitions, yet their people have long been fascinated by the world beyond.

Following in the neat footsteps of Japanese package tourists of the ’70s and ’80s, and more recently the Taiwanese and Koreans, mainland Chinese look set to dwarf them all. The World Tourism Organization expects outbound tourism from China to soar from the current 10 million people per year to 50 million by 2010, and 100 million by 2020, making China the leading single source of tourists worldwide.

“We sent several thousand people abroad in the last week of January,” says Wang, head of outbound travel at CITS, China’s largest tour operator. Top destinations included Thailand, Malaysia, Japan and Australia. “Business was 40 percent up on last year, but we could have sent 100 times as many tourists!

“There were simply not enough planes to meet the demand, and visas are difficult to get. Besides, 98 percent of Chinese still don’t have passports.”

For decades, leisure travel in the People’s Republic was the preserve of the elite. Model workers might earn an annual week at the beach, or a spell in a state-run sanitarium, but the options for most were limited and very local. During the Cultural Revolution, some young people became Red Guards mainly for the free train tickets to make revolution across the country.

After the government relaxed internal travel restrictions in the 1980s, economic reforms have nurtured a middle class seeking broader horizons, and able to pay the fare. Over the past two years, Beijing has encouraged their wanderlust by introducing three “golden weeks” of public holiday — at May Day (May 1), National Day (Oct. 1), and Spring Festival (late January/early February).

In mid-January, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji repeated the government’s three-pronged policy:

* “Vigorously develop inbound tourism.” By 2020, the WTO predicts China will host 130 million tourists and snatch France’s title as top travel destination worldwide.

* “Actively develop domestic tourism.” At 750 million-strong last year, the domestic tourist market is already the world’s largest.

* But, “Develop outbound tourism in moderation.” Beijing’s delight at billions of foreign tourist dollars ($16.2 billion in 2000) is tempered by concern over the drain in the opposite direction. China’s citizens already have the Great Wall T-shirt. Millions now boast sufficient money, time and freedom to climb more exotic landmarks.

“All my friends go abroad when they can,” says Li Shuang, a Beijing-based film producer. “It’s become a question of ‘face.’ You go abroad to open your eyes and broaden your knowledge, but especially if people you know have been abroad. You don’t want to lose face.”

Last October, Li took his sister to South Korea on a package tour. “It was cheap, convenient and I wasn’t doing anything else that week.” He remembers the local tour guide’s wide-eyed wonder. ” ‘From Oct. 1 to 4, guess how many Chinese tourists have visited Seoul?’ he asked. ‘20,000! The Chinese will take over the whole tourist world before long. Terrifying!’ “

Clad in identical tour caps, clutching the same tour bags, and following a flag held aloft by their guide, the Chinese may appear like innocents abroad. Yet gambling, forbidden in China, is a major lure for Chinese visitors to Macau, Sydney and Pyongyang (yes, the world’s only Stalinist state now boasts two casinos), as are the shows and services of Asian fleshpots like Bangkok.

Chinese group tours are currently limited to 10 countries and regions with “approved destination status”: Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Seven more Asian destinations, including erstwhile adversary Taiwan, may open up this year, but Europe and North America remain some way off.

“A great number of Chinese would love to go to places like France, Italy and the United Kingdom,” claims Wang of the CITS. “They have heard of London, Big Ben, Oxford and Cambridge. The U.K. developed very early, it is the home of the industrial revolution. But its government is not very smart!”

Like many Chinese, Wang resents the discriminatory visa regime most Western countries adopt against Chinese passport holders.

By dragging out bilateral negotiations on tourist access, Wang believes the West is missing out on golden business opportunities. “Chinese shopping is shocking,” he says. “We don’t stay in hotels as expensive as the Japanese, but Chinese have lots of money to spend.

“We buy on a family- or group-basis. If one person from a village or work unit is going abroad, everyone gives him money to buy them things. I’ve seen Chinese visiting Thailand who buy 20 crocodile skin belts each and 10 gold necklaces.

Yet European and U.S. retailers will be denied the pleasure of these purses while the fear of illegal immigration persists. A European diplomat in Beijing said, “We all want the tourists, but we are afraid that they will stay on.”

The Australian authorities have already penalized a number of Chinese travel agencies whose charges attempted to abscond. A $1,500 holiday seems a bargain compared to the $30,000 paid by the 58 ill-fated refugees who suffocated at Dover, England, last year. Their home province of Fujian is already on a blacklist of Chinese locations whose residents face prohibitive visa requirements.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.