When right-wing French politician Valérie Pecresse visited China in June, she was promoting the Greater Paris region on a campaign trail with stop-offs including Beijing, Hangzhou and the Great Wall.
Pecresse, president of Île-de-France for the Republicans party, had deemed it unacceptable that Chinese accounted for only about 2 per cent of the 40 million tourists visiting the capital and its suburbs in 2017.
She vowed to introduce measures to woo Chinese tourists – most of them digital: a full roll-out of mobile payment solutions Alipay and WeChat Pay, to ensure a “100 per cent cashless journey by the end of 2018”; pocket Wi-fi solutions; and a partnership with Chinese retail giant Alibaba (owner of the South China Morning Post), to create a Paris region portal on its online travel platform, Fliggy.
French-language magazine Capital described the initiative as “a full-on opération séduction” of the Chinese – and it’s one that has spread nationwide as France aims to woo five million Chinese tourists a year by 2020.
Yet technical innovations are not all the authorities have at their disposal. From the southwestern Dordogne region to the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in the southeast, local tourism boards and attractions are also hoping to get a big boost with the help of Chinese travel bloggers and influencers.
Newspaper headlines have pronounced their messiah-like coming with euphoric exclamations such as: “Dordogne: One of the most influential Chinese bloggers visiting the Lascaux and Grand Roc caves” and “A highly influential Chinese tourism blogger visiting Perigord”.
In March Sladana Zivkovic, deputy mayor of the city of Dijon responsible for international relations, tweeted: “Fan Yibo, one of the most influential travel bloggers in China, is in Dijon! Report on France 3 television tonight at 7pm.”
The award-winning Chinese travel blogger and photographer claims on his Instagram account to have visited “629 World Heritage Sites and 111 countries on all seven continents”. With more than 1.7 million followers on Weibo, since 2015 the 44-year-old Beijing-born blogger has been widely wooed by tourism authorities to promote sites in their regions.
Hailed by the French newspaper Le Figaro as “the Great Helmsman of tourism”, Fan has visited dozens of historic sites, from the famous to the obscure, on his 15 visits to France.
It is all part of his research for a series of 10 books on World Heritage Sites he is compiling for his Chinese publisher, “the first which will be devoted to the Hexagon”, French sources say, using a nickname for the country.
For Emmanuel Egretier, communications director at the French National Monuments Centre, the first visit by Fan – a “cultural tour de France” – helped kick off the centre’s success on the Chinese internet.
“We now have over 9,000 subscribers on Weibo and 3,000 on WeChat. We are still young on these networks, but our growth of regular followers is steady. In one year, our number of subscribers has doubled,” Egretier says.
“Among the posts that most touched the Chinese public was a video of the sunrise on Mont-Saint-Michel [in Normandy], which has totalled some two million views.”
For three years, Egretier says, the centre and promotional agency Atout France has been targeting Chinese journalists – many of them young and working for several online media.
“We must not underestimate the strength of the Chinese word of mouth that can very quickly make things happen,” he says. “We have already succeeded in winning the interest of a major Chinese press agency to Paris, as well as other influencers.”
Egretier adds that the coup means visits to lesser known sites such as the 14th century Paris Conciergerie, winding up with a glass of champagne on the Arc de Triomphe, “will be immortalised in a live streaming posted on Weibo”.
In an interview with travel agency Oscar Tours, which specialises in organising trips to France by Chinese tourists, Fan said he was promoting a new way of seeing the world.
“I recommend travelling independently, out of groups, and especially having your own car. We must also try to stay with locals. As far as destinations are concerned, I recommend places that are not very popular because this is where we have the best surprises. And of course, try French gastronomy, stay in the countryside and visit the most beautiful villages.”
Having visited Paris, Burgundy and the Dordogne, Fan says representatives from regions that are relatively unknown in China are now turning to him.
“During my [October 2017] trip I visited Brittany. I liked its landscapes, its villages and its seafood. I do not get tired of your country. There is too much to do and see. And above all, I remain very curious. I always come to see things with a fresh eye.”
Fan says his favourite things about France are the approach to food and also the great diversity of landscapes.
“What I like least is that some French people have fixed ideas. Also, the French speak poor English.”
He also has gripes about the reception of Chinese tourists in France, pointing out areas with room for improvement.
“Their level in foreign languages, the level of service in general and also, at Roissy [Paris Charles de Gaulle] airport, you often have to wait in line for a long time,” he says.
These shortcomings are echoed by Bin Wu, a Paris-based China market tourism consultant and secretary of the promotional agency Cercle France Chine.
“The goal of five million Chinese tourists by 2020 is only possible if France promotes a far more diversified range of nationwide attractions,” he says, “On top of that Sunday trading is essential” – many shops close on Sundays – “together with guaranteed higher levels of security for Chinese tourists.”
The attack and robbery targeting a group of 40 Chinese tourists in November 2017 in Paris, during which the culprits used tear gas, led to a huge drop in the number of visitors from China and left the country’s image in tatters.
The bloggers have played a big part in the recovery, according to Shanghai-based digital marketing specialist Olivier Verot, a Frenchman specialising in the Chinese market and founder of the branding and e-commerce business, GMA (Gentlemen Marketing Agency). “They take pictures and help project a more diversified, dynamic and safe image of France,” he says.
I recommend travelling independently, out of groups, and especially having your own car
Fan Yibo, influential blogger
“In China, opinion leaders exert a strong influence, and are generally known personalities or brand ambassadors followed by thousands, or millions, of internet users. In the tourism industry, KOLs [key opinion leaders] are very important, Verot says, because they bring glamour to the places they visited by their sharing photos.
Oscar Tours, which has offices in the French city of Lille and the Chinese capital, Beijing, is one of a handful of prominent go-betweens actively seeking to attract China’s travel blogger stars to the lesser known locations in France.
“Bloggers [or influencers] can put a spotlight on destinations, hotels, museums, vineyards, castles, restaurants, reaching hundreds of thousands of Chinese internet users,” its website says. “If you wish to benefit from the services of one or more Chinese travel bloggers, contact us for a turnkey solution!”
French tourism bodies are being coached by specialised agencies about their presence on social media – and how critical and effective it is for interacting with Chinese users.
“On these platforms [such as Sina Weibo, WeChat and Baidu], users post comments and send you messages. You can easily create a relationship with your consumers,” Verot says.
“The content published by KOLs generally has eight times more engagement than that posted by the brands on their own social networks,” says Caroline Paul, the Paris-based founder of digital tourism marketing agency Talents & China Travel.
Increasing numbers of small tourism offices and sites are now integrating Chinese social media networks into their strategy.
Culturespaces, the biggest private operator of monuments and museums in France, is reporting phenomenal success in attracting Chinese visitors to sites such as the Amphitheatre of Nîme and Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on the French Riviera since it launched on Chinese social channels.
“Our operation seduction of the Chinese public got under way in 2016 and started out with visits to China, and workshops targeting hundreds of Chinese tourism professionals, bloggers and journalists,” sales manager Sophie Etcheverry says.
The KOLS – harnessing the new technologies – have helped them pass what she calls the “great wall of the language” in communicating with Chinese.
“As part of Fashion Week, for example, we organised the Chinese social media influencer Xiaoyan Shi to visit for a photo shoot at our sites. She took pictures and that allowed us to gain visibility in those circles,” Etcheverry says.
As “Operation Seduction” of the Chinese becomes a mantra in France, and diversity in the country’s tourism offerings an imperative, it would seem the star travel bloggers also need some new, female company.
Perhaps Lei La, with 4.8 million followers on Sina Weibo, is helping to shape a new generation of young women travellers with the tagline: “In-depth travels by an independent female – do not follow fashion to explore the destination.”
“Bet on new blood … In this ever-changing environment, taking risks can also pay off,” Paul says.
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