Paris ramps up tourist security amid Chinese concerns

PARIS Fri Aug 2, 2013 4:34pm EDT

1 of 3. French Interior Minister Manuel Valls (2ndL) and Junior Minister of Crafts, Business and Tourism Sylvia Pinel (C) speaks with French soldiers patrolling near the Eiffel Tower in Paris August 2, 2013 during a tour focused on security at the city's top tourist areas.

Credit: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

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PARIS (Reuters) - France said on Friday it would work harder to safeguard tourists in Paris after a spate of muggings of Asian visitors made such headlines in China that the Chinese embassy demanded action.

Interior and Tourism Ministers Manuel Valls and Sylvia Pinel said on a tour of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower that 200 police had been put on patrol to protect tourists and steps were being taken to help foreigners prevent and report crime.

France is the world's most-visited country and solid tourism revenues are a bright spot in its depressed economy.

But reports of pickpockets and muggers targeting Chinese tourists have soared of late, tarnishing the French capital's image as a favored destination for love-struck couples and high-end shoppers.

"Paris is a safe city. What we want to say today is: tourists and friends from all over the world, come to Paris, welcome to Paris, bienvenido a Paris!" Valls told journalists.

Petty crimes against Chinese nationals jumped 22 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier, a Paris police official told Reuters. He said Asian tourists were targeted because they were known to carry a lot of cash on them.

Staff at the Louvre went on strike in April over a surge in pickpockets, shutting the world's most-visited museum for a day.

Security guards say Chinese tourists visiting France for the first time seem to get more easily distracted than more seasoned European tourists when gazing at works like the Mona Lisa.

Police recently issued a "Guide to staying safe in Paris" - translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Spanish - advising tourists to carry a minimum of cash, favor small banknotes and watch out for gangs of teenagers, commonly from eastern Europe, who pick pockets while conducting phoney petitions.

At the Louvre, tourists can now file legal complaints directly on site in 16 languages without going to the police.

Some 1.4 million Chinese visited France last year, up 23 pct from 2011. Millionaires in China rate it their top destination.

But a group of 75 French luxury brands including Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Dior and Hermes warned in May that Chinese buyers, the world's top spenders, risk favoring London or Milan as they view Paris as dangerous.

In March, a group of 23 Chinese were robbed within hours of landing in Paris. In June, six Chinese wine-making students were assaulted in Bordeaux in an attack Valls called "xenophobic".

The Chinese embassy has pressed French authorities in recent months to address the issue, which was also raised when Socialist President Francois Hollande last traveled to China in April to meet his counterpart Xi Jinping.

Jean-Francois Zhou, head of Ansel travel agency which runs tours to and from China, said he advised clients not to take the metro or leave their hotel at night. His tour guides pepper their talk with warnings like "pickpockets to your right".

"It's a killjoy," he said. "These visitors have big dreams about Paris but things like this smash their illusions."

(Reporting by Natalie Huet; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Sonya Hepinstall)

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