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A Great Wall In Our Minds: Why Italy Risks Missing The Boat On Chinese Tourists

Chinese tourists offer European countries a major new source of revenue, but Italians are slow to catch on to the opportunity.

Chinese tourists in Rome (Ed Yourdan)

Chinese tourists have quietly surpassed their American and Japanese counterparts to become the biggest foreign traveler spenders in Italy. Last year, some one million Chinese came to visit, each spending on average 869 euros.

The remaining 249 million well-off Chinese, who now have practically the same purchasing power as the European middle class, stayed home -- or went somewhere else.

Booming Chinese tourism is an opportunity that Italy, which is struggling to kick-start its economy, should jump at. And yet, politicians are silent on the topic. The government has yet to come up with a new system to help funnel arrivals in Italy from Beijing or Shanghai – and the study of mandarin as a foreign language in Italian schools is still considered an exotic idea.

Our system continues to look at the Chinese through an obsolete lens: seeing them as potential illegal immigrants hocking counterfeit bags and sweaters on the streets of Naples, or huddled in Prato, the textile-producing town near Florence that hosts Italy's largest Chinese community.

At Beijing's Embassy in Rome, officials recount how Chinese citizens who fly business-class and stay in five-star hotels face long waits to get their visas to travel to Milan for some high-end shopping. As a result, many choose Paris, London or Frankfurt: not only do they get a visa more easily, they are also greeted with a tailor-made welcome.

This tale of Chinese tourists who step across the Great Wall and land in Europe on the hunt for leather goods and watches is a paradigm of Italy's need for new eyes. While we find comfort in old stereotypes, the world around us is changing at an incredible pace, so much so that Ferrari chose Shanghai for the presentation of its top car and Prada decided to be listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange rather than Milan's.

The leap we must take is a cultural one, if we are to stay on the new global tourism map. We must understand that not just Chinese, but also Russian, Brazilian and Indian tourists are a great opportunity when they come knocking on our door.

But we must also understand what it is that they want from us. When they pick Italy, these new tourists are not thinking about the Uffizi, or the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Venice are actually an exception). They are not hungry for archeology or Baroque churches, but rather for our fashion, our design, our wine. They have another Italy in mind, they want to come here and take a little bit of our way of life, our taste for fashion, to be a part of Italian style.

We now find sushi on the counters of Italian cocktail bars during the evening's aperitif, and this makes us feel very cosmopolitan. But in Shanghai and Hong Kong, the hip people go have a drink at the bars of luxury hotels, where they are served French or Italian wine as they nibble on trays of Parmigiano, Gorgonzola, Camembert or Taleggio cheese. "Wine is the new tea," I read in an English-language Chinese magazine last week. The fact that wine bars are mushrooming in virtually every Chinese city confirms the trend.

The force behind this cultural revolution is mostly people in their 30s and 40s who live in big cities. Their dream is to come to Italy to buy Zegna suits, Ferragamo shoes and Prada and Gucci bags, play golf along Lake Como, gamble in the Venice casinos and visit wine cellars in Tuscany and Piedmont.

This is the path they believe can lead them toward becoming sophisticated citizens of the world -- and we are talking millions of potential new visitors. It would serve all of us well, as well as the ‘Made in Italy" brand, to make this path as smooth as possible and lose our fears and snobbery. We must find the courage and the far-sightedness to tear down the Great Wall in our heads, our bureaucracy, our investments -- and in the way we think about tourism and our country's future.

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