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 apiece.
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,” François 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 last October to help Chinese visitors obtain travel documents quickly and easily.
“Our figures show a rise of about 20% 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 added. “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 around 600,000 direct and indirect jobs. It also claims to attract more international visitors – around 17 million – than any other city in the world, including one 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 £1.2bn a year. The World Tourism Organisation says the number of Chinese tourists travelling abroad increased from 10 million in 2000 to 83 million in 2012. About half of them spend more than £3,000 a trip and account for 25% of sales of luxury goods around the world, giving them considerable economic clout.
In 2012, Shanghai-based Hurun Report reported that France had become the preferred destination for increasing numbers of China’s estimated 2.8 million dollar millionaires.
The Do You Speak Tourist? report claims that Chinese visitors spend 40% of their holiday budget shopping, mostly for luxury goods. Britons, who make up the biggest number of Parisian tourists, spend 7%, and Americans 25.7%.
It says the Chinese, whom Navarro describes as “the kings of shopping”, want “luxury shopping above all” and “have an idealised and romantic vision of Paris”. It advises: “A simple smile and good day in their own language will keep them more than satisfied.”
France’s attempts to present a welcoming face to the new tourists from China have suffered a series of setbacks in recent weeks after a spate of muggings, including the beating up of a group of Asian wine students in Bordeaux earlier this month.
The incident was condemned in China and by France’s interior minister, Manuel Valls, aware of potential economic repercussions, as a “xenophobic attack”.
In May, the Colbert committee, made up of 75 of France’s most prestigious luxury goods companies, including Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, Chanel, Dior and Hermès, warned that foreign tourists, particularly Chinese visitors carrying lots of cash, were being deterred from visiting Paris because the city had become “synonymous with insecurity”.
However, Edouard Lefebvre of the Champs-Elysées committee, which represents 182 outlets on the celebrated boulevard, said shops were making special efforts to cater for Chinese shoppers, including having “someone who speaks Mandarin, Cantonese and other Chinese languages”.
“We’ve developed a service adapted to their needs, which includes delivering the items they buy to their hotels,” Lefebvre said.
And such is their spending power that sales staff, taxi drivers and even the stereotypical epitome of Gallic grumpiness, the Parisian waiter, are being encouraged to proffer a “huang ying guang” (welcome) or “ni hao” (good day), in an effort to encourage the Chinese to part with their money. London and Britain take note.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk