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BEIJING — When Hu Shuzan of Shanghai made his second visit to Paris, he planned to see more museums, take in the city’s impressive architecture and do plenty of shopping.
What Hu, 58, did not expect was to be robbed on the subway by a group of teenagers that he said surrounded him and feigned interest in what he had just purchased at a department store. This occurred just five days after his traveling companion had 1,000 euros — about $1,330 at current exchange — stolen from his wallet while visiting the Eiffel Tower.
Hu returned to Shanghai with 600 euros lost to thieves in Paris and an impression that theft and street crime have simply become normal hazards for the growing number of Chinese tourists visiting the French capital.
“I called the police later and they told me these are confirmed criminals from Romania on the subway,” recalled Hu, who made the trip in December. “I don’t know why they were just blaming foreigners and never took any action against them.”
According to travel offices and security officials, Chinese tourists, traveling abroad in larger numbers than ever and typically flush with cash, have become a favorite target of Paris’ notorious pickpockets. Street crime is relatively low in China, so many tourists simply aren’t used to the hazard and have not learned about proper precautions when they visit a city that is a dream for many.
“I was warned that the whole security situation in Europe recently was not that good,” Hu said. “I was told not to use my iPhone in public areas. But they didn’t tell me what thieves in Paris actually do. I don’t have the whole picture.”
China is still a cash-based economy and the majority of tourists going abroad prefer carrying cash to plastic. What’s more, their daily bank withdrawal limits are severely restricted based on monthly salaries, sometimes allowing them to withdraw only 100 to 200 euros a day. On top of that, many don’t know whether all French stores accept the UnionPay system cards distributed by Chinese banks.
For French retailers who count on China’s well-heeled travelers, the rash of thefts is worrisome.
July and August are the biggest travel months for Paris and Chinese tourists are abundant, with those two months, plus September, representing about a third of the hotel arrivals of Chinese tourists in the French capital in 2012, according to statistics institute Insee.
One Chinese government report said visits by Chinese people to France increased by 23 percent last year. Shopping, particularly for luxury goods that can be bought far cheaper in France than in China, is often a key feature of the trip.
The average basket of an outbound Chinese tourist in France per transaction, or the amount spent per store — excluding department stores — in one day was 1,575 euros, or $2,063 at average exchange, in 2012, according to Global Blue, which tracks tax-free shopping.
Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in Paris reports that crimes against Chinese tourists surged by 10 percent last year.
“Asian tourists in general are targeted by pickpockets as they are easily identifiable and they often carry cash,” acknowledged Laurent Queige, director of the office of Paris’ deputy mayor in charge of tourism.
However, he stressed that the situation has improved thanks to initiatives to reinforce security. The Paris police have deployed 200 police officers in the main tourist areas daily since April.
Other initiatives include messages broadcast in various languages on buses running from Charles de Gaulle Airport, and plans to inform tourists about how to report cases via a simplified police report in a choice of 16 languages.
According to the Paris police, the number of cases of robberies of tourists in the Louvre Museum dropped to around 30 in May from 120 in May 2012.
“It is not a major issue for luxury groups yet,” said an industry executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The problem is confined to Paris and specific areas. Also we don’t have control of the problem. We won’t act as sheriffs in the streets. The threat lies more in the media coverage and perception of Paris. Down the road, tourists could choose other destinations, such as London.”
Galeries Lafayette, which Hu was leaving when he was robbed on the subway, declined to comment.
Chinese tourism officials issued warnings to Chinese nationals, and have also asked Paris officials to step up. After one high-profile case in which 23 Chinese tourists were robbed in May outside Charles de Gaulle Airport, the China National Tourism Administration called on French authorities for better protection and safety precautions.
The tourism bureau says one million Chinese tourists visit France every year, most going through or staying in the capital city. It’s not difficult to find ones robbed on their journeys.
Xu Xi, 25, who now studies in Europe, was chatting on an iPhone while visiting Paris and a thief swooped past on a motorcycle and grabbed the device.
“I think Chinese people are easily robbed,” said Xu. “There’s a belief that every bag on a Chinese person contains at least one watch. Chinese people also need some time to get used to credit cards.”
Li Shiyuan, 23, a Chinese citizen who studies in England, was stunned when two girls in Paris robbed her while pretending to make small talk. “I think the security situation in Paris is very bad,” said Li. “Chinese people are easily targeted, especially Chinese girls and elderly ladies because these people tend to buy a lot of luxury goods and look rich.”
After France, Switzerland, the U.K., Italy and Germany are the most attractive destinations in Europe for Chinese tourists, according to a study in 2012 by Atout France, the organization responsible for promoting France as a tourism destination. Switzerland — a country known for its safety — is gaining popularity among them.
“[The] U.K. isn’t part of the Schengen area, therefore Chinese tourists are required to have a specific visa,” statistics research manager of the Paris Tourist and Convention Office Thomas Deschamps explained. “We aren’t too afraid of London’s competition for the Chinese clientele yet, even though there is a desire to visit the country and some still go.”
Chinese tour operators and their clients are not yet giving up on Paris. Many have implemented strict safety guidelines, hired more guides to keep watch over groups and advise against staying in certain parts of the city where crime is more prevalent. Travelers are being educated about protecting their personal possessions and safety.
“We ask our customers not to show off their wealth, especially after they go shopping,” said an agent who only gave her surname, Zhang, from the Wenzhou branch of one of China’s biggest tour operators. “For example, we try to persuade them not to wear their new [Louis Vuitton] bags when out walking on the streets.”
Hu Yao, a Shanghai travel company manager, said he has added staff to Paris trips to better protect clients and avoids hotels in districts with “chaos and bad security situations.”