The sky is more than just the limit at Ctrip (NASDAQ:CTRP) these days. It may simply be the launching pad, as investors warm up to the idea that the promising growth stock is still in the early stages of its evolutionary growth cycle.

Last night, the company humbled analysts once again, as it has in all but two quarters of its first three years as a public company. Wall Street expected Ctrip to produce a profit of $0.24 a share before stock-based expenses, on a 40% surge in net revenue. Instead, China's leading travel specialist saw its top line soar 49%, to $30.1 million. Earnings climbed 35%, to $0.32 per share before stock-based compensation, or a still-robust $0.25 a share on a reported basis.

The top line is growing faster than the bottom line, but that's expected. As Ctrip moves from its flagship hotel-booking business toward lower-margin products like airfare ticketing and tour packages, the market knows that margins will slip a bit.

The end result is still pretty to look at. One can even take solace in the 64% surge in air ticket revenue, which nibbled away at overall margins. A few quarters ago, Ctrip was being challenged by the reluctance of paper-ticket consumers to embrace e-tickets' paperless convenience.

Ctrip's report compares favorably to smaller rival eLong's (NASDAQ:LONG) first-quarter showing. eLong posted a more modest net-revenue spurt, and continues to lack operating profitability.

True, Ctrip isn't cheap. Surveying a somewhat pricey basket of Chinese growth stocks doesn't make it look any cheaper.

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Focus Media (NASDAQ:FMCN)





China Life (NYSE:LFC)



Even the faster-growing (NASDAQ:BIDU) is trading at 43 times next year's earnings, like Ctrip. However, if you approach Ctrip as a play on China's travel boom, the valuation gets relatively better. Home Inns (NASDAQ:HMIN) is trading at a lofty 122 times this year's profit target, and 62 times next year's earnings estimate.

That certainly doesn't make Ctrip cheap, but as the market leader in a potentially explosive niche, it's tough to bet against this company.

Ctrip is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems stock pick, while NetEase and Baidu are selections in the Motley Fool Rule Breakers research service. Try any of our Foolish newsletters free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has been a fan of China's high-margin stocks for a long time. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy.