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Paris pickpockets target tourists from China

Adam Thomson in Paris
Saturday, 24 Aug 2013 | 5:12 AM ET
Eric Feferberg | AFP | Getty Images

For years, Paris has traded on its reputation as the City of Light and even as the city of l'amour. But for a growing number of Chinese tourists, it is becoming the city of crime.

Chinese visitors are descending on Paris in record numbers and their lavish spending on luxury brands has made them an irresistible target for thieves. Petty crime between January and the end of June in one of the world's most-visited cities jumped 7.8 per cent compared with the same period in 2012 – but it was up by more than 24 per cent when it came to Chinese tourists.

Jean-Francois Zhou, a tour operator based on the Champs-Elyseés, says that thieves see the hordes of Chinese as prime targets because they carry far more cash than visitors from other countries – in large part because of the significant fees involved in using their plastic cards abroad.

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They also load up on luxury goods, which are often much cheaper than at home and are highly prized by China's burgeoning middle classes for their ability to reflect newly acquired wealth. "They're not just buying one bag for themselves," says Mr Zhou.

"They're buying in large numbers and for all their friends and relatives." He says that Chinese tourists will usually spend between €2,000 and €3,000 on their holiday package but about three times that much on luxury goods during their stay.

(Read more: China tourism set for boom like Japan in the '80s)

The crime wave, which comes as the Chinese government has told its citizens to mind their manners while abroad amid fears a rude minority may tarnish its reputation, is a particular concern for Paris's luxury goods companies. Faced with a tough environment in Europe, the companies have relied on sales to tourists, particularly to Chinese, to support the domestic market.

LVMH, the world's largest luxury group by sales, said this week that it did not discuss security issues. But in May, the Comité Colbert, an 78-member association, including Hermès, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Céline, Givenchy and Guerlain, said that things were getting critical. "Paris is acquiring a reputation for absolute insecurity," the Comité's Elisabeth Ponsolle des Portes said at the time.

Paris officials say that typical crimes consist of pickpocketing and bag-snatching, particularly around the city's biggest tourist and shopping attractions – the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elyseés with its luxury stores and the bustling Printemps and Galeries Lafayette department stores.

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Pick-pocketing became such a problem at the Louvre this year that staff went on strike in April to raise the alarm. Luxury companies' attractive and distinctive gift bags, meanwhile, act as beacons for the city's criminal element. "If the companies used plain white bags, it might help," says Xavier Castaing of the Paris police prefecture. "But we can't exactly ask them to do that."

Some attacks are more violent. Mr Zhou says that one particularly dangerous area is a tunnel near the Stade de France, which coach drivers use to ferry some Chinese visitors back to their budget digs on the outskirts of town. "They stop the minibuses there, break the windows with hammers and steal the goods," Mr Zhou says.

In response to the spike, local police this summer launched a 26-point plan to protect tourists from petty crime. The measures include an extra 200 officers walking the streets of Paris as well as beefed-up surveillance around hotels.

(Read more: Chinese Wonder Why Their Tourists Behave So Badly)

Authorities have even translated the latest edition of a security manual for tourists into Chinese and created tourist complaints centres, known as SAVE by their French acronym, in police stations.

Mr Castaing of the city's police prefecture says that it is still too early to say how effective the measures have been. In the meantime, authorities are urging tourists to stay on their toes. The message? Paris may be irrepressibly beautiful and intoxicatingly romantic, but it is still not heaven on earth.

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