Being in Paris as a real tourist for the first time in several years made me realize how much Asia is changing the face of tourism everywhere. The first time I came to Paris, in the mid-’80s, there was hardly an Asian face in the places I went to. I was often mistaken for Japanese, and the Parisians, well, you could hardly get them to speak English. Since then, I’ve been to Paris several times and stopped doing the tourist circuit, instead going deeper into local neighborhoods and Parisian life with local friends. This time, though, I was traveling with six other friends and family, all of whom were visiting Paris for the first time, and there’s nothing like seeing a city you love through the eyes of the novice.
It makes everything come alive again and reminds you of why you fell in love with the place in the first instance. The old and familiar sights — the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame — remain as dear. The beauty of Paris and its architecture never fails to take your breath away, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. We were staying at Citadines at St. Germain des Pres, a French apartment brand acquired by Singapore’s Capital Land some years ago. As Asian brands have expanded overseas, customers from Asia have followed them. They’ve brought with them an Asian flair and flavor to a market more accustomed to the traditional European style of hospitality.
Walk into the Shangri-La Hotel, Paris, and you get a wonderful blend of European heritage — this being the former home of Roland Bonaparte — and Chinese touches. The Mandarin Oriental just arrived and has already started tongues wagging with its signature grandeur and style. I suppose it’s like the old days, when Americans would travel to Asia and they’d stay at familiar brands such as Marriott and Holiday Inn. As far and as much as we travel, we like to cling to the familiarity of home, at least as far as somewhere to sleep is concerned. And these brands are counting on the old and new travelers from Asia to be their customers. It being peak tourist season in Paris, there were queues everywhere, and this was the biggest sign of change: There were as many Asian faces as Caucasian in those lines.
On the Bateaux Mouche and at Moulin Rouge, Asian faces dominate. These are the new markets of first-time travelers. And, well, first-time travelers have got to do the main tourist sights before they move on elsewhere. At Moulin Rouge, Fanny Rabasse, the head of communications, told me that China is their biggest foreign market. She also said they’re still looking for their first Chinese dancer, and that’s been hard to find. Girls have to be 5 feet 8 inches, and boys must be 6 feet. Not only do you have to be tall, you have to be graceful and strong; the costumes those girls wear must weigh a ton.
I can’t imagine walking dressed in them, let alone dancing, jumping and generally prancing about. At the La Vallee shopping outlet, there are definitely more Asian faces than Caucasian. I felt like I was back in Asia on the bus that took us to the outlet, about 40 minutes outside Paris. Along the way, I heard Korean, Mandarin, Malaysian dialect, Hindi, Thai, Indonesian … At the shops, some of the service staff were of Asian origin and spoke French, English and Mandarin.
At a panel I moderated for a conference in Europe this year, I recall Lily Cheng, managing director of TripAdvisor China, saying that Chinese would account for 20% of inbound travelers to the European Union by 2020 (compared with 5% in 2010). She spoke of how demand was coming from all over China — from more than 60 different cities, not just the four cities of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
“Outbound travelers are coming from all over China,” Cheng said. “To reach 70% of the demand, you need to cover 60 cities all over the country.”
And here’s the point about shopping: A fourth of the world’s luxury travel goods are bought by mainland Chinese, 60% of which is purchased while they are traveling. So are you surprised that even the French are realizing they need to speak the language of the customer, not the other way around? And, oh yes, I am no longer mistaken for Japanese but am recognized as a mainland Chinese.