The Year Of The Chinese Tourist

With barriers to European travel lowered, mainlanders are arriving in droves

On a gray November afternoon a line of buses pulls up outside Paris department store Printemps and disgorges a crush of Chinese tourists. As they surge through the doors, they're met by a team of 15 Chinese-speaking employees who shepherd them through the store and help them load up on their favorite items, including cosmetics, watches, and handbags. There's little time to waste. "We're visiting 11 countries in 15 days," says a breathless Li Na, a 30-year-old civil servant from the central province of Hunan, who makes a quick stop at the Chanel makeup counter before being led onward into the store.

For Europe, it's the Year of the Chinese Tourist. An estimated 900,000 mainland Chinese poured into the Old World in 2004, a number that is expected to grow by double digits in the coming years. Until recently, only Chinese businesspeople and students were granted European visas. But last year, Germany made it onto the Chinese government's list of approved tourist destinations, and on Sept. 1, Beijing added 26 other European countries. "European tours are becoming a key part of our business," says Wang Xiaochun, a travel agent at one of the Beijing offices of the China Travel Service Group, who says tours ranging from 5 to 15 days cost $1,000 to $1,800.

European hoteliers, retailers, and purveyors of luxury goods are rolling out the red carpet. Luxembourg travel consultant IPK International estimates tourists from mainland China will fork out $42 billion on foreign trips worldwide this year, up 35% from 2003. "They are now our No. 1 foreign customers, ahead of the Japanese," says Jean-Michel Hallez, head of the Galeries Lafayette department store on Paris' Boulevard Haussmann. "And they're set to grow."

That trend is nowhere more evident than in Paris, the favorite European destination of Chinese tourists. The City of Light expects to welcome 200,000 this year, and 40% more in 2005. Paris hotel chain Accor started deploying Chinese-speaking reception staff last year. It also added congee -- a rice porridge -- to its breakfast menu and Chinese TV channel Phoenix in guest rooms. Jewelry and watchmaker Cartier (RCHMY ) recently began hosting private soirees for groups of Chinese clients at its main Paris stores. "It's an opportunity for them to discover our creations in the birthplace of Cartier and in a welcoming, Chinese-speaking environment," says Cartier Chief Executive Bernard Fornas.

LITTLE DETAILS

Since nearly all Chinese tourists travel in organized groups, some European companies are even hiring sales staff in China to market themselves to China's 528 approved European tour agencies. Printemps, a unit of Paris-based Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, has an office in Hong Kong and is opening another in Shanghai. Employees try to persuade tour operators to include Printemps on their itineraries. In exchange, they offer to help the operators with other arrangements in Paris. "The guides often don't speak French, so to keep them coming back to us, we offer to help them sort out the little details, like booking restaurant tables when they're in Paris," says Marisa Minelli, International Sales Manager for Printemps.

Paris isn't the only European locale angling for Chinese visitors. After Germany won early approval for Chinese visits last year, Bavaria's tourist board persuaded a Shanghai TV station to undertake a filmic tour of the state, which aired in April. In July the board also launched a Chinese-language Web site. The land of lager and lederhosen expects to welcome 120,000 Chinese tourists this year, up 64% from 2003. "They love the old Bavarian pubs and are in heaven when there's a sing-along," says Richard Adam, head of the Bavarian tourist board. Say, what's German for The East Is Red?

By Rachel Tiplady, with Raphael Kahane in Paris and bureau reports

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