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Wed, Sep 01, 2004 - Page 12 News List

France readies for Chinese tourists

TRAVEL Tourism workers in Paris are learning Mandarin phrases and eagerly expecting an influx of visitors now that Chinese tour groups are to be allowed into Europe

AFP , PARIS

Chinese travelers wait in the international departures hall of Beijing airport yesterday. Tourism industry professionals across Europe are gearing up to welcome a new generation of Chinese travelers from today, when private Chinese tour groups will be allowed into 27 European countries. France, Italy and Switzerland are the most desirable destinations, according to travel agents.

PHOTO: AFP

France, the world's top tourist destination, is rolling out the red carpet for a flood of Chinese nationals expected to visit the country beginning today, when private tour groups are to be allowed into Europe.

From the Louvre to the Galeries Lafayette department store, the must-see landmarks in Paris are printing up floor maps in Mandarin and teaching personnel a few Chinese phrases in anticipation of the huge influx of visitors.

"The infrastructures in France are up to scratch, and the industry is really aware of this new market and waiting for them as if they were Santa Claus," says Patricia Tartour, chairman of French tour operator Maison de la Chine.

The Accor and InterContinental hotel chains have jumped on the Beijing bandwagon, offering tea sets, Chinese newspapers and Asian-style breakfasts to customers craving the creature comforts of home.

At Bateaux Parisiens, one of several companies offering Seine river cruises, employees have learned to say hello in Mandarin and audioguides are available in the language, according to marketing director Adeline Margerand.

The agreement between 27 European countries and China will lead to a sharp increase in the number of Chinese nationals visiting the continent, but 300,000 to 400,000 already came to France on professional or family visas in 2003.

According to various estimates, that number could double to between 600,000 and 800,000 by 2005 and top the 1 million mark in five years.

In 10 years, according to Paris tourist board director Paul Roll, "the Chinese will be the first or second-ranked nationality among visitors to France, ahead of the British, the Americans or maybe the Japanese."

More than 120 French travel agencies -- both major international groups and smaller firms catering to Asian customers -- have been accredited as official tour operators by the Chinese government.

France's junior tourism minister Leon Bertrand, who will welcome the first group of Chinese tourists today at Charles de Gaulle airport, acknowledges the "considerable potential" of the Chinese market.

He also says he wants to "highlight the importance of the Chinese market for France and our willingness to reinforce bilateral cooperation" on the heels of the Year of China in France, and ahead of the Year of France in China.

Industry experts are hoping that the flood of Chinese tourists during the last quarter of 2004 could help salvage what has been a lackluster year for the French tourism industry due to a disappointing summer.

The first group, due to spend 12 days in France, Italy and Switzerland, will swing through the City of Light in grand style, taking in the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, a Seine river cruise and a show at the famed Moulin Rouge cabaret.

"At first, Chinese tourism will be a `multi-destination' thing with trips to three or four European countries in eight to 10 days, France and Italy being the must-see spots," says Roll.

Roll said his organization had formed a China Committee five years ago, bringing together managers from top stores, restaurants and tourist attractions in order to devise ways to best serve the Chinese clientele.

In terms of fine dining, most experts agree that Chinese tourists are more comfortable eating in restaurants that remind them of home, but some of the French capital's larger brasseries are preparing foie gras and escargots.

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