Commenting on the potential riches of doing business with China, the president of the English Board of Trade wrote in the 1840s that, "If we could only persuade every person in China to lengthen his shirttail by a foot, we could keep the mills of Lancashire working around the clock."

The sheer number of people living in China -- approximately one-quarter of the Earth's population in a single country -- has held men and women of trade and commerce in awe since Marco Polo wrote of his travels there.

But there has been surprisingly little achievement in realizing China's trade potential in subsequent centuries. England achieved a positive balance sheet with the nation not by convincing the Chinese to lengthen their shirttails but by addicting its population to Indian opium and going to war with them, business practices which, in combination, are generally frowned upon these days.

Still, with the 2008 Olympics just a few calendar pages away, many creative business minds the world over are once again mulling how to separate the billion-plus Chinese from some of their yuans.

And as the desire to profit from trade with China spreads through the travel industry, there has also arisen a wet blanket in the form of Tom Jenkins, executive director of the European Tour Operators Association.

"People come armed with statistics," Jenkins told me in a recent phone call. "You know, 'one born every minute' -- actually, closer to one born every 10 seconds. They'll say you need only 1% to 2% of the population interested in your product and you'll be flooded with people."

But those rushing to prepare for a deluge of outbound Chinese tourists neglect to factor in several relevant data points, Jenkins believes, including the significant number of Chinese living in poverty, the fact that China is not a free-market economy and that most rosy statistics about outbound traffic from China are skewed by "outbound" destinations such as Hong Kong and Macau.

Jenkins subsequently sent me a piece he recently wrote for a U.K. publication, also called Travel Weekly, in which he asserted, "These days, saying 'China' is an easy way of saying, 'Hey, I am a forward-looking guy' ... but its cosmopolitanism masks earnest stupidity. Tourism is the Utopian solution to every bad business idea."

Saying that all markets are important and new markets are to be cherished, he nonetheless characterizes China as "a comparatively small market growing at a modest pace."

Jenkins' comments suggest that his tour operator members' resources would be better spent if they faced West rather than East.

On the topic of whether China poses a market share threat to Europe, particularly regarding North American tourists, Jenkins is sanguine.

"China is not a competitor," he said. "What people get from China is a culture and society older than European civilization with stunning historical and cultural artifacts, extraordinary natural sites and one of the most significant human landscapes on Earth. But it's not a society that lies at the root of American cultural identity in the same way that Europe does.

"There is nothing that appeals on the same level that Rome does to Roman Catholics. There is nothing with the same cultural pull as Venice or Florence or Paris. China's an amazing place, but Europe's Europe. Where did your language, your law, your literature come from? I'm afraid it's all Europe."

Of course, it should be remembered that Jenkins has a horse in this particular race. His job is to promote travel to Europe. And I wasn't sure to what extent his Europe-centric point of view took into account, for instance, the growing Asian-American population in the U.S. or even that portion of European-descended America that is looking for something exotic and unfamiliar.

Still, I suspect that his total analysis may not be far off regarding the short- and even medium-term prospects for inbound travel to and outbound travel from China. The Olympics may ultimately prove to be a mixed blessing; the pre-Olympics spotlight shining on the country has highlighted not only its preparations but its polluted air. And I'd be surprised if human-rights activists don't take advantage of international coverage to press their case against the Chinese government.

Christopher Columbus is said to have written "meracciones innumeras" ("incalculable trade") in the margin of his copy of "The Travels of Marco Polo" alongside the description of the harbors of Cathay. More than 500 years later, the world still stands waiting, calculators in hand.


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