The integration of space and time generates much closer interactions between geography and other social sciences in general while providing new perspectives for the role of geography in tourism flow studies. This paper aims to apply exploratory space–time analysis to provide insights into inbound tourism flow patterns in China's cities over the period of 2000–2009 using city-level Geographical Information System datasets. First, this paper ascertains that there exists geographic neighborhood effect at city level by testifying significantly positive spatial autocorrelation. The hot spots and temporal stability are identified. The hot spots are locally concentrated in metropolitan areas. Local Markov matrix has also shown significant transitions with negative or positive influence of geographic neighbors upon a city. Specifically, three-dimensional surface is created to visualize tourism flows. The spatial inequalities have the pattern of ‘the east more dense than the west, the south more dense than the north’. There simultaneously exist spatial agglomeration and spatial dispersion. The intensity of spatial agglomeration has become stronger. At the same time, smaller peaks of tourism flow centers developed around the main cities and spread toward surrounding cities. These potential tourism flow centers have gradually emerged and grown larger. Furthermore, the space–time covariance matrix uncovers correlation, which shows strong regional integration over years. Eight hundred and ninety links are identified and visualized. Two hundred and sixty nine links forming 10 spatial clusters represent strong positive correlation. One hundred and thirty-four links are negative correlation, which is about 15.06 per cent of all links. In conclusion, our comprehensive evidences offer deeper insights and have important policy implications. These enable the tourism-oriented governmental agencies, as well as the tourism industry professionals, to better understand the changes of inbound tourism flows in China's cities and relevant tourism partners/competitors for cities. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.