China's big-spending tourists pause at stores as yuan drops

Chinese tourists wait for their bus after visiting the Versailles palace (Chateau de Versailles), outside Paris. PHOTO: AFP
Chinese tourists wait for their bus after visiting the Versailles palace (Chateau de Versailles), outside Paris. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS/HONG KONG (REUTERS) - The Chinese tourists who have become a common sight in the world's major cities fear their wings will be clipped if Tuesday's shock yuan devaluation develops into a deeper dent in their spending power.

More than 100 million Chinese travel abroad every year, buying more luxury goods than any other nation. Shopping for the perfumes and designer clothes that can cost them twice as much at home is a major travel incentive.

"I'd planned to go to Seoul this month with my friends and then Thailand alone in October. But I'm afraid the yuan will devalue more," Xuechang Huang, a 48-year-old housewife from Guangzhou, told Reuters. "So I think I won't go to Seoul for shopping, but just to Thailand for sightseeing."

Huang Ruifen, a shop owner from Guangxi on a shopping trip to Hong Kong, was equally decisive. "I'll stop buying luxuries until the yuan is up again," she said.

China devalued its currency by 2 per cent after a run of poor economic data - a move some economists think could herald a longer-term slide in the exchange rate. The downward move was the biggest since a massive devaluation in 1994, and appeared to reverse a previous strong yuan policy.

Investors were quick to bet companies like Louis Vuitton holding company LVMH, Gucci owner Kering and L'Oreal could suffer. The stocks were among the biggest fallers on the Paris stock market, dropping between 1.5 and 4 per cent. The companies declined to comment.

Chinese tourists have been spending record amounts on luxury goods this year, VAT-refund company Global Blue said in a report published in April. For European destinations, the weak euro has been a big draw.

Analysts reckon Chinese luxury spending accounts for as much as 45 per cent of the global market - up from effectively zero a decade ago. Chinese account for well over a third of total European luxury spending.

Despite the market reaction, the potential currency effects are mixed for the industry.

Global Blue says as much as 40 per cent of Chinese tourist purchases abroad are destined to be sold for a profit back home on the grey market, so a weaker yuan may just displace some sales back into China.

Luxury sector margins are also generally higher in Asia, although the currency translation effects for European-based companies could cancel out some of that benefit. "Overall it's likely to be negative in my view," said Nomura luxury goods analyst Christopher Walker, "(but) it's increasingly hard to monitor ... All the luxury companies are trying to manage their pricing and manage the gaps. This just throws another question mark into the pricing mix which makes it just difficult to manage a luxury business at this point." Either way, the sums involved are huge and have been growing fast.

The World Tourism Organisation says China was the biggest"outbound" tourism spending country in 2014, with US$165 billion laid out, up 28 per cent from 2013. As recently as 1995, the Chinese spend was just US$3.7 billion.

The price of a Gucci handbag was not the only thing on Chinese minds after Tuesday's devaluation, according to a straw poll of Chinese tourists around the world.

Hong Kong realtors fretted over the impact on the market there, while students interviewed in Beijing and Sydney feared for the cost of their foreign schooling fees.

But for now, there was plenty of determination among them to enjoy their purchasing power while it lasts. "You can buy more in Australia. For example, to buy Ugg boots it's 1,000 yuan in China, it's 200 yuan in Australia,"said Kou Meng Nan, 20, a college student from Beijing on a 12-day shopping trip to Sydney.

It was business as usual, too, at Galeries Lafayette in central Paris, where visitors from China poured off buses and into the grand department store. Before Tuesday's dip, the yuan had strengthened 15 per cent against the euro since the beginning of 2014. "That should make sure that this devaluation doesn't have any significant consequences," said Catherine Oden, China director for Atout France, France's official tourism promotion arm. "It's the end of the season anyway for the Chinese." For some, of course, it's just not about the price. "It's really bad news for me," said Tommy Liu, 27, standing outside a Chanel store in Hong Kong waiting for his girlfriend. "No matter if the currency is up or down, I'll buy anything for her to make her happy."