Robbers in France target big-spending Chinese tourists

PARIS • Mr Leon Chen looked frazzled as he shepherded a group of Chinese tourists through the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris, past stands stacked with luxury bags, perfume, jewellery and caviar.

As a guide, he knew all too well that cash-flush visitors lugging bags of valuables are easy prey for muggers and pickpockets.

"It's happened many times. The last two groups I had were robbed in this store," he claimed, recounting how unseen predators made off with bags momentarily left on the floor by their owners.

"I tell them Paris is dangerous and to hide their money inside their clothes. I try to be more careful everywhere. What more can I do?" he asked.

While all tourists are potential prey for thieves, the big-spending Chinese, who have a reputation for carrying wads of cash with them, have emerged as a prime target.

Recently, a group of about 40 Chinese tourists were gassed and robbed outside their hotel near the capital's Orly Airport - the latest in a series of attacks that have dented France's image among Asian travellers.

That incident triggered a statement from the Chinese embassy in France. It urged travellers to exercise caution, given that "several large-scale violent robberies" involving Chinese tourists had occurred recently in the country.

Mr Jean-Francois Zhou, head of the Paris-based Ansel travel agency, said France used to be associated with "the good life and gallantry".

"That image has been tarnished. Everyone now is aware of the security risks," he added.

The most recent robbery, in the low-income suburb of Fresnes, fits a pattern of attacks at cheaper hotels in outlying neighbourhoods where some tour operators put up less affluent visitors.

In August last year, a group of assailants also used teargas to hold up a group of tourists outside their hotel in a gritty neighbourhood near Charles de Gaulle airport to the north of the city.

A receptionist at a three-star hotel in the high-rise, north-eastern suburb of Le Blanc-Mesnil told Agence France-Presse that her place of work - which also regularly receives Chinese groups - had been targeted repeatedly.

"They used to come in groups of five or six, on scooters, and rob handbags and cash from tourists in the carpark," she said.

The hotel responded by closing an entrance near the road that served as a quick getaway route and instructing staff to call for a police car to be present each time a Chinese group arrives.

"But it's still happening today," the receptionist added, noting that the hotel had been targeted twice in the past six months by robbers posing as police officers.

China was the world's biggest outbound tourism market last year in spending terms, ahead of the United States.

Paris is a favourite European destination of the Chinese, but France lost some of its lustre in 2015 and last year, with three large-scale terror attacks dealing a severe blow to its carefree image.

Chinese arrivals fell 23 per cent last year to 1.8 million, but tour operators and department stores said that by the summer of this year, they were back in force, encouraged by the marked decline of bloodshed in the past year.

A salesman at Galeries Lafayette, which this year opened a store dedicated to Chinese shoppers, told Agence France-Presse that demand for €2,000 (S$3,200) Italian handbags was brisk.

But while tourists may have begun taking the continuing terror threat in their stride, crime could yet stymie France's ambition to attract five million Asian tourists annually by 2020.

The police have tightened security around tour groups and deployed mobile vans to help visitors report thefts in a host of languages, including Chinese.

And to encourage visitors to carry less cash, some department stores have begun installing terminals from Alipay and WeChat Pay, two of China's most popular mobile-payment platforms.

But for Mr Zhou, "given the scale of the phenomenon, these measures are not enough. The Chinese feel really abandoned in France", he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2017, with the headline 'Robbers in France target big-spending Chinese tourists'. Print Edition | Subscribe