China UnionPay has an enticing mix of attributes that make it very attractive for a new travel payments play, said Celia Pereiro, head of Amadeus Travel Payments, a unit of Amadeus IT Group.

"The hotels, railways [and] airlines all want to reach consumers from China," said Pereiro, whose company recently integrated China UnionPay into its travel payments portal. "And it's a very large market."

Amadeus is hardly alone in finding UnionPay's massive user base an attractive target for international payment companies. Global Payout recently launched a transfer service with the Chinese payment network. Other partnerships include a prepaid card with Rev Worldwide and an e-commerce partnership with Acculynk

Under the Amadeus partnership, travel providers such as airlines and e-travel agencies can offer UnionPay cards as an online payment option in more than 140 countries. The Madrid-based works with more than 300 airlines, which integrate payment authorization into their ticketing and selling workflows. "The travelers will be able to make payments at any website or other point of sale, such as a counter or a call center." Pereiro said.

UnionPay has more than 4 billion cards in circulation, according to UnionPay's statistics, and its $2.5 trillion in transactions over the first half of 2013 placed it second globally to Visa's $4.6 trillion.

"The partnership will dramatically extend our reach, as many travelers from China are UnionPay customers, and also don't have access to other cards like Visa and MasterCard," Pereiro said. By linking China UnionPay cardholders directly with payment processing for travel purchases like airfare and hotels, Amadeus hopes to enable a seamless experience for Chinese travelers who are making purchases from North American and European bookers and merchants.

The many companies working with UnionPay are pursuing not only a growing middle class that includes an increasing amount of travelers from China, but also an expanding mobile commerce market. That growth has also made Alipay, a China-based electronic payment company, an attractive partner for U.S. payment companies such as Stripe. Other foreign companies such as Monitise are also eying China.

"It's still an immature market, but it's fast growing," said Tristan Hugo-Webb, associate director of the International Advisory Service for Mercator Advisory Group, noting that 10 million Chinese citizens travelled outside the country in 2013, a rate that's expanding fast.

The middle class in China and surrounding countries also served by UnionPay, such as Malaysia and Singapore, currently has about 500 million people, and is will grow to a range of nearly 2 billion to just shy of 3 billion by 2020, Hugo-Webb said.

"Projections vary but it's possible that 20% of the world's population by 2020 will by middle-class people from Asia," Hugo-Webb said. 

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