ene Sperling, former White House economic advisor to President Clinton and current advisor to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, told attendees of the World Travel and Tourism Council Summit in Doha, Qatar, to keep an eye on China.

China's economic growth may reach 10% or 11% in 2004, Sperling said, but he's wary of China's "command and control" economy. Too many levers are pulled by the government, he worries, and not enough by market forces. There's anxiety the economy will overheat. "The fear is that it's built on a foundation of bamboo," Sperling said.

"Bamboo is very strong and flexible," Edwin Fuller, president and managing director of Marriott Lodging International, told me later that morning. Fuller has directed Marriott's aggressive international growth since 1990, when only 16 hotels were in 10 countries outside the U.S. Today, among 15 brands, there are 500 Marriott properties in 68 countries.

He said: "We've put 33 hotels in China since 1996, and we'll have 41 there before the year is over."

Why the accelerated growth in China? Fuller's not anticipating a sharp rise in visitors to China or in Chinese domestic travel. He's anticipating a sharp rise in Chinese citizens traveling outside China. Then why build hotels in China? "We want to be the preferred brand of the Chinese who travel, and there's no better billboard for your brand than your own hotels," he said.

He said Marriott employs a similar "gateway strategy" in other major source markets, including the U.K., Germany, France and Japan. "And before we ever built in the Mexican resort cities, we put hotels in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey, to build awareness in the Mexican domestic market."

Fuller said Marriott projected several years ago that China will become a giant source market for outbound travelers and said he doesn't share Sperling's anxiety in the least.

"Last year, 20.2 million Chinese traveled abroad. Is that good? Compare it for a moment to India. India sent only 4.2 million outbound."

Fuller concedes that most of the Chinese outbound travel was regional, but he thinks there's a huge pent-up demand, and the affluence to travel farther is developing rapidly. As Marriott's man in charge of international development, he charts patterns of travelers from every source market. "Russia is interesting to us. In our seven Red Sea resorts in Egypt, 60% of the occupancy is Russian. They're in the Caribbean, and they're starting to show up in Thailand." That's part of the reason Fuller has built six hotels in Russia.

"Korea has long-term potential" for outbound travel, he believes, so there are now four Marriotts in South Korea. And, Fuller makes sure to note these billboard hotels are profitable in their own right. "Our Marriott Executive Apartments in Shanghai are chockablock full. We're in a very long-term business, and I feel the world is our oyster," he said. "We want to be the lodging company of preference in the world. And we're going to get there."

I wish Fuller well but admit that I, like Sperling, have concerns about command and control economies. I'm glad Fuller takes a long-term view of growth because if it turns out that China's economy does overheat, I wouldn't want him to feel that, in the short-term, he's been bamboozled.


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