6,400-strong tour group: Chinese company takes distributors to France

Billionaire boss of China's Tiens Group reaps publicity windfall from taking 6,400 distributors to France

You don’t build one of China’s biggest multi-level marketing companies -- with an army of people peddling herbal toothpastes, “aura energy stones” and bio-fiber beverages door-to-door -- without a knack for, well, marketing.

So when Tiens Group founder and Chairman Li Jinyuan decided to take 6,400 of his top distributors on an all-expenses-paid trip to France last week to mark the company’s 20th anniversary, the billionaire undoubtedly knew it would generate a wave of publicity to help offset the $14.5 million he shelled out for chartered jets, 30,000 hotel stays and a private tour of the Louvre.

The throng of worker bees in matching turquoise-and-white hats made headlines around the world as they ventured from Paris to Nice taking in a Moulin Rouge show, spectating at a World War II commemorative parade that featured Li riding in an American jeep, and even getting together to set a Guinness world record. (Their feat? Massing marching-band style on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice to spell out the words “Tiens’ dream is Nice in the Cote d’Azur,” in what Guinness declared the "longest human-made phrase.")

French tourism authorities said the group was the biggest ever to visit the country, and warmly welcomed what they described as an economic windfall. (Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius even met some “VVIPs” at the Quai d’Orsay.) But back home in China, many people were deriding the spectacle as a crass publicity stunt that would be another blotch on the already blemished reputation of Chinese tourists abroad.

Reports that some of the travelers drank excessively on their flight to Paris, and that the employees loudly chanted company slogans in Nice added to the cringe factor.

“What an embarrassment,” the chief executive of mobile phone maker Smartisan, Luo Yonghao, said on his Weibo account. “This is a company that sells healthcare products and got over 6,000 of its sellers to chant slogans for two hours at a beach in France. They even deployed police to maintain order.” (In fairness, photos from the scene showed a very relaxed police presence.)

Tianyou, a well-known writer, said Li “wanted to live out his dream of being an emperor overseas.” The spectacle, he added, “gives the outside world more evidence of a ‘China threat.’”

“I don’t know if people in France will hate what he did,” Tianyou added. “If he tried to show off like this in China, would he be arrested?”

With the number of Chinese taking trips overseas exploding -- they made more than 107 million trips outside the mainland last year, up almost 20% over 2013, according to Chinese authorities -- cities and countries around the world are going out of their way to welcome these new (and sometimes very wealthy) tourists, despite the occasional cultural disconnects on points of etiquette.

France is the 10th most popular destination for mainland Chinese tourists, receiving 1.9 million last year, said Wolfgang Georg Arlt, director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute. (Hong Kong is No. 1, while the U.S. ranks seventh, with almost 2.4 million, though visits to America are likely to rise thanks to recent changes that allow Chinese to receive a 10-year, multiple-entry U.S. visa.)

“We definitely scored points in China ... the echoes are extremely positive,” Christian Mantei, director-general of Atout France, the tourism development agency, told France’s Nice-Matin newspaper.

Although Mantei predicted that the group members would spend nearly $1,700 each on top of what Li paid for the trip -- Nice’s upscale department store Galeries Lafayette was booked for their private shopping pleasure on Saturday morning -- local Chinese-speaking salesclerks had doubts about the demographics.

One commented on Weibo that the shoppers were largely unsophisticated middle-aged women and senior citizens who were afraid to even look at the price tags.

With more Chinese going abroad, their nation has become deeply self-conscious about the image its travelers leave behind.

Large posters at Beijing’s airport remind outbound tourists that they are ambassadors for their country and that their behavior reflects on the entire nation. The National Tourism Administration has published a 64-page guide to being a “civilized” tourist. (Tips: don’t pick your nose, eat loudly, or steal airplane life jackets; do avoid gambling and pornographic activities.)

Authorities have even gone so far as to create a “blacklist” of badly behaved tourists, this spring naming and shaming four offenders, including two people who threatened to bomb a plane bound from Thailand to Nanjing in December and threw hot water on a flight attendant; the pilot was forced to turn the plane around. Another man made the list for opening a plane door in mid-flight.

Though their behavior may have endangered lives, those three offenders were put on the list for just two years. A young man who climbed on top of a state of a Red Army soldier to pose for a photo was giving a 10-year listing. Authorities said the roster would be circulated to tour agencies and customs officials.

No one in the Tiens group has been accused of any blacklist-worthy offenses, but its sheer size alone may be judged by some people to be disruptive. (In addition to about 5,500 Chinese sellers, the group included about 900 others from countries including Russia, Kenya and Peru. 

Tiens is hardly the only multi-level marketing company to stage such mass vacations. In 2010, Michigan-based Amway paid $80 million to treat 13,000 of its top Chinese sellers to a week in Southern California, but their visits were staggered over five weeks.

Last May, a 7,000-strong tour group from the direct-marketing company Perfect China visited San Diego, Los Angeles and other Southern California cities, ending their visit with a rally at the Anaheim Convention Center, where they sang the Chinese national anthem and raised the country’s red-and-yellow flag.

Pan Yiqing, China representative of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, a consulting group, said such massive tour groups are still extremely rare and that very few ordinary Chinese companies treat employees to lavish vacations. Chinese tourists, she said, are increasingly opting to travel independently rather than in large troupes.

Nevertheless, she acknowledged that the publicity impact of the Tiens outing was huge. “It’s in every newspaper in China,” she said. “I had never even heard of this company before today.”

In an commentary, China’s state-run Global Times tabloid urged Chinese critics to lighten up.

“It isn’t worth making the Tiens Paris trip into a headache for Chinese society, debating whether it’s good or bad,” said the newspaper's editorial board. “The two sides [the company and France’s tourism industry] have both gotten what they wanted; it would be more desirable if the carpers in China would adopt that attitude.”

Tommy Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from China

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

9:40 a.m.: This story has been updated with figures on the number of Chinese travelers visiting France and the U.S.

The story was originally published at 8:40 a.m.

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