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Paris puts a charm on Chinese tourists
For their first full day in Paris, the first Chinese tourists to visit the French capital in an official tour group were treated to a full taste of its charms, from art and architecture to the can-can.
The day, September 1, started under a bright blue sky as the 56 visitors from the Chinese capital rode to the top of the Eiffel Tower accompanied by Jean-Bernard Bros, Paris's deputy mayor in charge of tourism.
Once at the summit, the tourists were surrounded by a swarm of journalists and television cameras who recorded their amazement at the panoramic view.
Unlike everyday tourists, this group only left Gustave Eiffel's structural masterpiece after receiving an official champagne toast, a book of photos and, of course, a key chain.
The red carpet treatment has one key explanation - French officials expect Chinese tourists to be one of the biggest growth sectors in the next 10 years after Beijing, from September 1, allowed private tour groups into Europe.
With numbers visiting France tipped to reach one million within five years according to various estimates, some predict the Chinese could even become the first or second-ranked nationality ahead of Britons, Americans and Japanese.
More than 120 French tourism agencies have been accredited as official tour operators by the Chinese government.
For French tourist operators, the hope is that any sudden flood of Chinese tourists in the last quarter of 2004 could salvage what has been a lackluster year and a disappointing summer for the world's top vacation destination.
The group climbing the Eiffel Tower, or at least those 24 who paid for the pleasure, appeared to represent China's urban elite, the 1 per cent who could afford such a voyage.
Fashionably dressed and armed with cameras and video recorders and hailing from elite professions such as law, industry and government, almost as if they had been hand-picked to give China a modern image.
Mr and Mrs Li are on their honeymoon. He is a pharmaceutical company manager and she is a computer programmer.
At 25 and 27 years old respectively, they say the trip is a dream come true - a dream that cost 40 per cent of their annual salary. "But we have received such a warm welcome that it does not seem expensive," says Mr Li.
Mr Jia, an industry manager who has also seen New York, finds the Parisian architecture more varied and interesting.
Han Fei, a young woman wearing fashionable jeans and sunglasses, says Paris is very romantic. "I'm enchanted by the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysees and the Eiffel Tower," she says.
"I want to go out walking and have a coffee in an outdoor cafe."
A visit to the Louvre museum took up the group's afternoon, impressing the art lovers among them.The Louvre's director, Henri Loyrette, told the group he was interested in partnerships and exchanges.
"The Chinese civilization's contribution to decorative art and painting is irreplaceable," he said.
Her only regret, said one tourist in front of the Mona Lisa, was that their trip had been too short. "I have not had time to see things well enough."
It's true that with only 12 days to take in three countries - Switzerland and Italy are next - there's little time for gazing.
The group finished up their day with dinner on a riverboat on the Seine and a can-can show at Paris's historic Moulin Rouge nightclub.