For one fleeting instant, an expression of intense exasperation flickered across the face of the immaculately groomed sales assistant in a chic Parisian department store as the Chinese tourists jostled and gestured at watches costing several thousand euros a piece.
Then she bit her lip and smiled. The Chinese visitors counting out wads of euros and engaged in what the Paris authorities call “fervent shopping” neither noticed nor seemed to care. They had cash, lots of it, burning holes in their pockets and, with visits to the Louvre and Versailles beckoning, not much time to spend it on the luxury goods and logos they were seeking.
The excited chatter was not so much about which monogrammed watch or leather handbag to buy, but how many.
As London frets over the bureaucratic obstacles placed in the way of high-spending visitors from Beijing or Shanghai, Paris is reaping the reward of an official drive to make the city the destination of choice for hundreds of thousands of increasingly affluent Chinese tourists.
“Let’s be perfectly clear, this is a competition with London, this is a battle between cities. Our goal is that Chinese visitors come to Paris, stay for longer and spend more money,” Francois Navarro, spokesperson for the Ile-de-France regional tourist authority, told the Observer. “Of course we prefer that Chinese tourists come to spend their money in Galeries Lafayette and not in Harrods.”
It helps that France is part of the Schengen area, the bloc of 26 European countries that requires only a single visa — a group that Britain has refused to join. The French authorities have gone further, establishing a joint-visa office in Beijing with the Germans in October last year to help Chinese visitors obtain travel documents quicker and more easily.
“Our figures show a rise of about 20 percent in the number of visas given since then, but it’s still not enough. We have fewer visa problems than London because of Schengen, but we have asked the French government to make it even easier for the Chinese to obtain visas,” Navarro said. “And our goal is to give them the best welcome possible.”
To this end, Paris has gone on another of its periodic charm offensives, sending hotels, cafes, shops and even taxi firms copies of a new booklet called Do You Speak Tourist? encouraging them to be “even more welcoming” to foreigners.
The Paris area draws 33 million tourists a year, creating about 600,000 direct and indirect jobs. It also claims to attract more international visitors — about 17 million — than any other city in the world, including 1 million Chinese tourists annually, compared with an estimated 110,000 Chinese visitors to London.
Britain’s tourist and retail authorities have long warned that the government’s tough visa restrictions, aimed at keeping out illegal immigrants, mean the UK is losing out on a growing appetite for international travel among increasingly affluent Chinese, to the tune of ￡1.2 billion (US$1.85 billion) a year.
The World Tourism Organization says the number of Chinese tourists traveling abroad increased from 10 million in 2000 to 83 million last year. About half of them spend more than US$5,000 a trip and account for 25 percent of sales of luxury goods around the world, giving them considerable economic clout.
Last year, Shanghai-based Hurun Report reported that France had become the preferred destination for increasing numbers of China’s estimated 2.8 million dollar millionaires.