Hotel owners and retailers are still dreaming of invading hordes of American and Japanese tourists. On occasion, they shed a nostalgic tear for the German and English visitors of yesteryear, while the more dynamic among them hatch plans to attract Russian oligarchs. However, figures on the global tourist trade paint a completely different picture and attest to a revolution that is already underway.

In 2011, which will also be the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, growth in the long-distance travel industry will be fueled by Chinese tourists — and Chinese consumers are expected to buy more package tours and more items in Europe’s luxury shops than any other group by 2015.

In its annual report, the China Tourism Academy forecasts that 57 million Chinese visitors will spend close to 50 billion euros in foreign destinations this year. In 2010, 54 million Chinese traveled abroad, spending approximately 40 billion euros in the process — a 60% increase on figures from five years ago. By 2015, China will become the number one tourism source market worldwide with 100 to 130 million visitors traveling to foreign countries where they will spend an estimated 110 billion euros.

Impressive economic growth has given China the world’s largest number of new billionaires and resulted in the emergence of what is now the world’s largest middle class. For the first time in history, more than 400 million Chinese, who benefit from an average income of 15,000 euros per year, are saving their spare cash to fund trips to see the world on the other side of the Great Wall.

European languages present a major obstacle

For their first sally out of the country, seven out of ten of them are planning to tour other Asian countries, while 30% — or as many as 42% according to some estimates — will be taking a trip to the Old Continent that has inspired so many of their dreams. However, when they finally set foot in Europe, they will be disappointed to find that very little has been done to welcome them.

The 15-20% surge in the number of Chinese tourists in 2010 has come in the wake of a four year period from 2005 to 2009, in which the number of Chinese travelers rose by an annual 10%. And in view of the policy in place in Beijing, which is intent on giving its white-collar workers a chance to see the world in exchange for their support for internal stability in the country, the invasion of Europe by groups of Chinese tourists is almost certain to continue. All of this amounts to game-changing news for the tourist industry in Western countries.

In the near future, most of the Chinese who visit Europe will be wealthy, well qualified residents of large cities, aged between 30 and 45, who are used to high living standards. For the most part, they will participate in package tours for their first experience of travel outside of Asia, but they will also expect to benefit from specific services. "The problem,” explains Li Meng, the director of China’s outbound tourism department, “is that it is much harder to organise a trip to Europe than it is to visit countries like Japan, Korea, Thailand and Singapore, which have made life easier for Chinese tourists."

Travelers face a long wait to obtain visas, there are hardly any flights, and those that are available are very costly. European languages present a major obstacle, and Europe’s hotels, shops, restaurants and museums have yet to adapt to the potential source of income represented by Chinese tourists. Prices are very expensive and the welcome in Europe has little in common with the meticulous politeness of the Orient.

Beethoven’s house in Bonn, Marx’s home in Trier

Viewed from Beijing, Italy is a special case. Ten years ago, it was the favourite destination for the first wave of pioneering travelers to Europe. However, today the Dutch tourist board spends more money on marketing in China than its Italian counterpart, which has not done anything to make life easier for Chinese visitors. In sharp contrast to the efforts made to accommodate Western tourists, signs and menus in Mandarin are virtually unknown in Italy, and there are hardly any competently trained tourist guides.

France and Germany, who have been quicker to adapt to the new status quo, are now the highest ranked European countries and the only EU states to feature in the top ten of Chinese sourced tourist destinations. They are followed by the United Kingdom, which has had to cope with the handicap of its non-inclusion in the Schengen Area, and Switzerland — which is ranked above Italy, Spain and Greece.

"The main obstacle,” explains Dai Bin, Director of the China Tourism Academy, “is that no attention is paid to the typical profile of Chinese tourists and their particular needs." For the most part, they are inexpert travelers, who still have memories of the hard times before the economic boom, and they have very simple needs. As a rule, they like to visit the largest possible number of attractions in the shortest possible time. Statistics show that they devote more than one third of their budgets to shopping, which mainly involves the purchase of luxury items that are made in China but are three-times more expensive in Asia.

They also have a certain fondness for cities and shops that are considered to be the height of fashion. In general, they prefer to save money on hotels and only rarely eat in restaurants, which they consider to be hostile or indifferent to the requirements of oriental travelers. At the same time, they are willing to pay a high price for prestige destinations. On a typical trip designed to be completed in ten days — the usual duration of a Chinese white-collar holiday — the average tourist will land in Frankfurt, before embarking on a standard tour that takes in: Beethoven’s house in Bonn, Marx’s home in Trier, the Hugo Boss factory store in Metzingen, the Pelicaen chocolate shop in Brussels, and the nearby Grand Ducal Palace in Luxembourg, which remains an appealing symbol of wealth.

Veritable army of Chinese and Southeast Asian billionaires

Then they travel to Paris for a visit to the department stores and the Eiffel Tower, before heading on to the vineyards of Bordeaux, the casinos of the Côte d’Azur, and the lavender fields of Provence (which are the setting for the most popular TV series in China at the moment). Then its time for a quick visit to Switzerland to pick up a few watches and to photograph the summit of the Titlis, where Buddha is supposed to have appeared to the Atlanta Olympics gold-medalist Donghua Li in 1996.

At that point, they move on to Italy: first stop Verona, where the Chinese want to see the Casa di Giulietta, then the Grand Canal in Venice, the leaning Tower of Pisa (which features in a famous TV advertisement), the shops in Florence and Milan, the Coliseum in Rome and the ruins of Pompey. Only the more well-heeled have the money for a further stop in London, which requires an additional visa, while most of the rank and file are happy to terminate their trip by flying over the Parthenon in Athens.

But perhaps the most damning detail of all is not Europe’s failure to take into account the needs of the average Chinese tourist, but the fact that nothing has been done to accommodate their richer compatriots. Over the next few years, Europe and Italy will become destinations for the veritable army of Chinese and Southeast Asian billionaires – who are expected to number 12 million in 2011.

Tourists in this bracket prefer to travel alone, and to be provided with chauffeurs and butlers. They are mainly interested in personalised tours that are specially designed for wealthy golfers and jewelry and Haute Couture shoping enthusiasts. They are also fond of luxury hotels in national parks, cruises and property tours of historic villas that are up for sale. Finally, to be appealing, offers for this market have to include “hidden treasures,” that is to say little known destinations that the super rich like to mention to impress friends and acquaintances on their return home. All of this may appear frivolous and even vulgar. But we ought to bear in mind that this is the major trend for tourism in the 21st century. After all, money talks — and these days it mainly speaks Chinese.