You Are What You Travel: Reflecting On Chinese Tourists Binge Shopping in Europe

You Are What You Travel: Reflecting On Chinese Tourists Binge Shopping in Europe
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
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“Hello, can I help you with anything?”

I’m at the bottom of the Jungfrau, in a watch boutique, and talking to a Chinese clerk.

“I don’t mean to be impolite, but I was just wondering whether the owner of this store is Swiss or Chinese?” I gestured at the store filled with Chinese-speaking customers and employees.

“Of course the owner is Chinese. Wake up, young lady. Chinese tourists are all around the world now. There’s no reason not to make money off your own kind. Chinese businessmen have even come directly here to open up a watch boutique,” said the clerk.

The watch boutique at the bottom of the Jungfrau is owned by and staffed with only Chinese.

I was on the Jungfrau and was about to travel across Luzern and Paris. What I gained from this trip was significance of Chinese tourists binge-shopping across Europe.

“The whole world is speaking Chinese.”

Looking across the watch boutique, every face plastered on the ads is Chinese, from Chen Daoming to Fan Bingbing. Each counter is packed, and it’s like scrambling at a traditional market except credits cards are swiped one after another for extravagant watches.

A mother helps her daughter try on a designer accessory while Chinese tourists stream into the store.

A tourist from Germany asks me, “They have traveled all this way to Switzerland, but did they actually get to the top?” The top he is referring to is the Jungfrau sitting opposite the watch boutique.

“That’s something I would like to know as well,” I say.
Not long after, I walk toward a convenience store, read the headline on today’s German newspaper, and ask a Swiss clerk what it means.

“Oh, it’s saying the number of Chinese tourists in Switzerland have increased drastically this year,” the clerk says.

The headline: Chinese tourists are increasing drastically in Switzerland.

Chinese tourists flooding into Europe has become a normality but also a phenomenon. The first time I became aware of this sensation was on the second day of the Chinese New Year.

I was visiting Luzern with some other international students and saw Chinese couplets pasted outside many of the watch boutiques. It confused me at first, but I understood instantly when more than ten Chinese tourists walked out of the store with countless packages. I thought jokingly to myself, “Thanks to them, Chinese New Year can be felt even in European air.”

Chinese New Year couplets outside watch boutiques in Luzern to attract Chinese tourists during the New Year.

Turning the focus to the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, there’s a French clerk and a Chinese-speaking one (most of the time they’re Chinese) at the counter of every well-known designer brand, like Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, and so on. Some of the brands even draw a red line across their entrance to control the amount of people flowing into the stores, and Chinese aunties line up to enter.

The tax refund counter is somewhere else you can see the spectacle of people in line and listen to them talk about how they plan to show off their purchases from the “Loufouye department store”.

Louis, one of my French friends, once told me, “When you’re walking on the streets in France, you will notice that not many French women carry LV bags. What we value isn’t highlighting our tastes with brands and accessories, but the elegance and charm of a complete style.” Louis also jokingly thanks the Chinese for boosting the economy of France.

“But this kind of material-orientated tourism is such a shame,” he says.

“How so?” I ask.

“You have finally made it to Europe, but the only thing you do is binge-shop at department stores to satisfy your material needs. Every one has his or her own choices, and I’m not criticizing anyone. I’m just thinking if I had the chance to visit Asia, what kind of trip would I plan? Instead of going after superficial objects, I would want to experience the local life and outdoors, and immerse myself in a different culture,” Louis says.

Speaking Chinese is the bomb now, and has become a necessity and advantage in Swiss/European boutiques.

As we were discussing the different choices of traveling, we noticed a story about culture differences in the evening paper. The title was, “An acclaimed French restaurant bans photography.”

Louis translates the piece for me:

[…]The reason is chefs are tired of Asian tourists taking pictures once they are served. First a shot of the food, followed by a selfie, and then uploading the photo with preferably a check-in and tag to let every one know they are in France[…] ”The food has grown cold by then, and they have missed the best timing to taste French cuisine. I stand by this principle.”

“We speak Chinese.”

He asks, “Do the Taiwanese also go crazy shopping when they travel overseas?”

I answered Louis with caution, and told him what I was about to say was only a personal observation.

“In general, the Taiwanese really like visiting Japan, but what they purchase there is pretty unique. Many Taiwanese tourists binge-shop at pharmacies in Japan, and they even circulate strategies on the Internet. For example, ‘The ten products you have to get’, ‘Doing it right the first time you go pharmacy-shopping in Tokyo’, and so on.”

Louis thought it was unbelievable. “Do the Taiwanese really have that many health issues?”

Upon hearing this, the first thought that came to my mind was, “Are the Taiwanese intellectually sick?” But I didn’t say it out loud. I merely explained to Louis why the pharmacies are special and how products are cheaper in Japan.

I told him I don’t spend a lot of time shopping in pharmacies when I visit Tokyo. I take the opportunity to walk around and understand the history of the city and creative industry better. These are my interests and decisions. “Are the Taiwanese intellectually sick?” is a joke, but at the same time it’s a complaint that I have buried deep inside of me.

A friend in Taiwan was told I had been to Rome, and she asked, “Did you go to the gelato place behind the Pantheon? Everyone on the Internet says it’s a must-go place.” I shook my head no. She looked at me incredulously and said, “Wasn’t the trip worthless then?”

I told her this is the way I choose to travel. At the same time, I realized that we can’t urge or force people to meet our expectations. Everyone has a will and characteristics that influence the way they travel. But as the development of transportation, reduction of flight costs, low-cost carriers, and other promotions make it easier for us to travel, can’t we spend a little more time to understand the local history and enrich our multicultural values instead of shop for the entire trip?

The Tiens Group from China recently treated more than 6,400 of their employees to France for four days. The Louvre and Galeries Lafayette refused to open their doors to the group of Chinese tourists, and the country responded by operating two extra high-speed trains. I reconnected with Louis because of this story. Louis said the massive group of tourists shocked the whole of Europe.

“That’s their choice. But you are what you travel,” said Louis. I can’t agree more. Everyone has the freedom to choose the way they travel, but your choice defines who you are.

Translated by Olivia Yang

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