PARIS, France — An epidemic is gripping Chinese tourists visiting the French capital: the Paris syndrome.
Like their Japanese counterparts, first-time visitors from China — fed on media reports and movies like “An American in Paris,” or “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain” — arrive expecting to see a quaint, affluent and friendly European city with smartly dressed men and women smelling of Chanel No. 5.
Instead, they discover Paris’s grittier side — packed metros, rude waiters and pickpockets intent on robbing cash-carrying tourists — all of which sends them into psychological shock.
“Chinese people romanticise France, they know about French literature and French love stories” said Jean-Francois Zhou, president of the Chinese association of travel agencies in France. “But some of them end up in tears, swearing they’ll never come back.”
For France, continuing to attract Chinese tourists, about a million of whom visit Paris every year, is key to rekindle an economy that stagnated in the second quarter, figures released yesterday by national statistics office Insee showed. Tourism accounted for 7.2 percent of France’s GDP in 2012, according to the Tourism Satellite Account.
Now, the boom in Chinese tourists is beginning to slow, partly because of reluctance to spend large sums in the face of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown, and partly because of concern about the welcome awaiting them in Paris, Zhou said.
For 20-year-old Jiang He, disappointment set in soon after landing in the French capital. The college student from Shanghai, who chose Paris for his first-ever overseas trip last year, was told soon after landing at Roissy airport that a fellow Chinese tourist’s luggage had been stolen.
He was also surprised to see Paris streets littered with cigarette butts and trash, he said in an interview.
“I thought Europe would be a very clean place but I found that Paris is quite dirty and French people don’t really care about cleanliness,” Jiang said.
Although less numerous than Americans, 900,000 Chinese tourists descended on the Paris region last year, almost half the 1.7 million visitors to France from the country, Thomas Deschamps, head of the Paris Tourism Office, said in a telephone interview. That was a 23 percent increase from 2012.
So far this year, the growth has been 11 percent compared with the same period in 2013.
“The number of Chinese visitors is still growing, but not as fast as before,” Deschamps said.
Shopping in Paris
Chinese tourists also aid the economy as consumers. About 60 percent of them went shopping in Paris in 2012, according to a report by the city’s tourism office, snapping up items such as bags from Louis Vuitton and Chanel and Hermes scarves. They spent 59 euros ($79) a day on average, slightly more than the 56 euros shelled out by the Japanese and more than double the average 26 euros.
Because they carry large amounts of cash, Chinese tourists are often targeted by pickpockets.
“Sometimes, they’ll try to pay for an ice cream with a 500-euro bill,” Zhou said. They usually convert large amounts of yuan to limit money-changing fees, and the use of credit cards isn’t as common in China as it is in Europe, he said.
Pickpockets have been so numerous in Paris that last year the staff at the Louvre museum went to on strike to demand a greater on-site police presence.
Chinese media reported that 48 tourists were robbed in May as they headed to their hotel in a suburb of Paris. In France, the problem was highlighted by the mugging of a group of Chinese tourists in Le Bourget, near Paris, said Muriel Sobry, police chief of 8th arrondissement of Paris, which covers the avenue des Champs-Elysees.
“Paris is a romantic city, but it’s naive to believe it’s crime-free,” she said.
Safety is a primary concern for Chinese. In 2012, Paris had excellent satisfaction ratings for everything from food to service and cultural events. It failed on two counts: safety and cleanliness. The two categories had satisfaction levels of 58 percent and 64 percent respectively, according to a survey conducted by the Paris Tourism Office.
A few months ago, China offered to send some of its own police to Paris to help tourists, Deschamps said. It didn’t happen because the two sides couldn’t agree under whose rules the Chinese police would operate, Sobry said.
Still, the city “has realised that Asian tourists are vulnerable,” Deschamps said.
This summer, Paris deployed mobile police stations in buses parked near key landmarks of the city.
“Don’t put your mobile phone on the table at the cafe,” and “avoid wearing expensive jewelry,” are among the advice given in the “Paris safety guide,” which has been available in Chinese since 2013. The Paris Police website is also now accessible in Chinese.
“It isn’t just about safety,” Michel Lejoyeux, head of psychiatry at Paris’s Bichat hospital, said in an interview.
“Excessive emotions, a new language, a new currency, all these changes make some travellers feel like they’ve lost their bearings,” he said.
To be sure, the sentiments reported by travellers to Paris aren’t unique.
Lejoyeux points to the “Florence syndrome,” described by French novelist Stendhal in the 19th century after he was overwhelmed by the beauty of Michelangelo’s David. The “Jerusalem syndrome” refers to “mystical” events and hallucinations experienced by some visitors to the holy city.
“Traveller’s syndrome is an old story,” he said.
The Paris syndrome is different in that it stems from the reality falling short of romanticised expectations. The visitors have to contend with unfriendly locals and tourism professionals who aren’t always welcoming, Zhou said.
“Waiters are impatient, they don’t speak English,” he said. “Our clients tell us: Parisians are mean.”
To change that image the Chamber of Commerce for Tourism in the Paris region created the “Do You Speak Tourist?” program, which offers industry professionals online language training and information by nationality. The Chinese like a “simple smile” and a “hello in their language,” according to the website.
For the time being, however, visitors from China, like the Japanese before them, will continue to come up against a City of Light that lacks the lustre of their idealised image.
By Ania Nussbaum, Caroline Connan, Jill Mao; Editors: Vidya Root, Steve Rhinds