There was no mention of other factors that may have kept tourists away, such as the massive earthquake in Sichuan province in May and the rioting and subsequent government lock down of Tibet in March.

Shao said "the inbound tourism sector is facing a considerable challenge this year", but his department was still forecasting a 1.5 per cent rebound in visitors, with revenues projected to increase one per cent to $41.5bn.

The government is counting on domestic travel to give the tourism industry a boost this year, and is drafting new guidelines to encourage workers to tag their annual leave on to public holidays.

China became the world's fourth-largest tourist destination in 2006 after France, Spain and the United States, and Shao has said that China aims to grab the top spot by 2015.