China celebrated its National Tourism Day on May 19, marking the fact that China has become the biggest domestic tourism market in the world with almost three billion travels last year. It is now also the number one international tourism source market with more than 83 million border crossings in 2012, according to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI).

However, despite the outbound growth, the number of visitors coming to China continues to decline.

The National Tourism Day was held for the third time since its inauguration in 2011. The date was chosen to commemorate the first travel diary entry of China’s most famous traveler, Xu Xiake, exactly 400 years ago in 1613.

Outbound travelers from China have followed Admiral Zheng in increasing numbers with more than 30 million out of the 83 million total visits going to countries beyond the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

As Chinese tourists spent more than US$102 billion for international travel last year, the balance of international tourism expenses and income from international visitors to China showed a decline US$68 billion in 2012.

COTRI said there are a multitude of reasons for the downturn of visitor numbers traveling to China for leisure purposes. Images of polluted cities and poisoned water and food, crowded museums and parks overflowing with domestic tourists, comparatively high living expenses against surrounding nations and negative word-of-mouth from peers who went to China looking for water buffalos and bicycles and found only highways and high rise buildings, has all contributed negatively to visitor numbers.

A majority of affluent people in the world have been to China to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, but bringing them back as repeat leisure visitors takes additional efforts. China is indeed “beautiful” as a new official tourism slogan claims, but to uncover China’s off the beaten track beauty is still not easy.

That in 2013 the National Tourism Day was celebrated for only the third time in China’s history illustrates that only recently has the Chinese government started to fully acknowledge the importance of all forms of tourism. Later this year a tourism law will come into being for the first time and official papers such as the “Outline for National Tourism and Leisure 2013-2020” have also been published. The Chinese president and party secretary Xi Jinping even mentioned outbound tourism in a positive way at a recent international conference.