Rarely in any period of China's economic history has virtually every global hotelier shared optimism on the prospects of the country's evolving tourism market.
Convinced by analysts' forecasts on a doubling of outbound travellers to 50 million by 2008 and a fivefold surge in domestic travellers by 2010, at least a dozen middle to upmarket global players are racing to add tourist beds around the mainland.
The prospect looks even more promising with Beijing hosting the Olympic Games in 2008, the country's World Trade Organisation trading status and stunning economic growth.
A burst of committed projects left them in a scramble for tourists in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
Shanghai is arguably the most punishing battleground, with New York-listed Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide vowing to double the number of its properties in the city to 10 by 2015.
"If you believe in China, you have to believe in Shanghai," said the group's Asia Pacific head Miguel Ko. "It is like if you believe in the United States, you have to believe in New York."
The ambitious plan would see Starwood brands such as boutique hotel St Regis and upmarket business hotels Sheraton and Westin appearing in Shanghai in addition to its existing 40-strong portfolio around China.
The group would challenge deluxe hotelier Shangri-La Asia's 981-room hotel in Pudong, the largest hotel in Shanghai, and the group's 48 hotels.
Costing US$138 million, the hotel was enlarged by adding a 375-room wing to the Pudong Shangri-La in September.
Another optimist on the mainland market is London-based InterContinental Hotels Group, which vows to triple its hotel projects to 125 by 2008 from 42 at present, according to chief executive Andrew Cosslett.
Entering the market primarily through the more affordable Holiday Inn brand, the group saw China's swelling affluence and expanding road networks as reminiscent of the United States' road infrastructure boom in the 1950s, he said.
That boom gave birth to Holiday Inn as the economic choice of travellers' accommodation along highways.
Singapore-listed Mandarin Oriental International is pursuing projects in Beijing and Shanghai, potentially its maiden investments on the mainland.
Although foreign investors aim at different segments of the hospitality sector, most want to play a managerial role to minimise investment risks.
Among a few exceptions are Shangri-La, the region's biggest hotel and resort chain, and Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels.
To maximise profitability, Shangri-La chief marketing officer Martin Waechter said the group would take equity interests in its new projects.
"There are a lot of American hotels in China, with some 50 to be opened by 2010 and 100 hotels by 2015. I assume that most of them are management contracts," he said.
"We take a different approach. Of the new Shangri-La hotels to be opened by 2010, we will have equity positions in 29 and five management contracts."
Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, which adopts a long-term investment strategy, is staging a comeback to Shanghai by investing US$361 million in converting the former British consulate on the historic Bund into a luxurious hotel and commercial complex.
The investment rush, however, has left a big group of hoteliers chasing a small pool of well-trained hospitality personnel.
In an attempt to overcome the issue of human resources, Shangri-La opened a training centre in Beijing last year and took its first student in August.
The Shangri-La China World Hotel in Beijing. The sector is set for a flood of new properties.
Source: Sourth China Morning Post