BERLIN: When China relaxed restrictions on foreign travel four years ago, European tourism chiefs rubbed their hands in anticipation of a surge in visitors that would rescue the sector from the woes of low bookings and security fears.
But while the number of Chinese visitors to Europe did indeed spiral to about a million last year, the increase has also brought with it considerable challenges that are forcing European tourism chiefs to rethink the way they sell the continent to the world.
The challenges derive from a fundamentally different perception of just what tourism is, ranging from an indifference to what Europeans might consider traditional sightseeing to an acceptance of cramped, highspeed bus tours across the continent. The consequences of this for the industry were one of the notable features of the recent ITB tourism trade fair in Berlin, the world's biggest, where delegates gathered for a special seminar to discuss the phenomenon of rising numbers of tourists.
The most basic difference, Monika Echtermeyer, a tourism expert at Bad Honnef university near Cologne, told the seminar was that Chinese tourists go on holiday in different ways from their more seasoned western counterparts. Tour companies keen to promote the finer points of European history or culture, for example, are likely to miss out on the Chinese market, since these aspects are not what attracts the new visitors.
For Chinese tourists Europe's biggest selling point is "the fact that the countries are close together, allowing visitors to travel to 12 of them in 10 days", she says.
Chinese visitors love to spend as little as possible on travel and hotels -- euro1,000 ($1,200, £690) is a standard all-inclusive price for a 10-day trip -- while saving money for shopping.
Bus tours are the dominant means of travel, and when Chinese people do visit attractions, they want the "classics", such as Paris's Eiffel tower, rather than the "insider tips" often preferred by American and European travellers.
This trend is frustrating for Horst Lommatzsch of the German tourism board. China will by 2020 overtake the US and Japan as Germany's largest source of non-European visitors. He hopes that by then the Chinese will have changed their ways.
Getting Chinese tourists from "highway tours, where they only see Germany through a bus window" is a priority, he says.
Wolfgang Arlt, head of a Berlin-based research project on outbound Chinese tourists, counters that Europe had to adapt to China, not the other way round.
"Many Chinese tourists, especially the rich ones, get a kick out of being pampered, even being naughty, in top-brand jewellery and luxury stores in Europe. Shops need to recognise this and react sensitively," he says.
Travel staff should also be trained to avoid the common mistake of assuming Chinese tourists are from Japan. "This mix-up makes Chinese people very angry," Mr Arlt says.
He praised the London tourism board -- an ITB prize-winner last week for European destinations catering for Chinese visitors -- but said it was wrong at this early stage for London to push a modem image of the city with Chinese visitors.
"It's important for Chinese tourists to be able to go home and say they have seen Buckingham Palace," he says.
Spain seems to have got this message. "We've recognised that, unlike Europeans who swarm to our beaches, Chinese visitors are attracted to our traditions or their perceptions of them -- such as bullfighting, flamenco dancing, as well as football, so these are the icons we put in our catalogues," says Josť Maria Callejon of the Spanish tourism authority.
With one proviso, however -- bullfights should not end with dead bulls, as Chinese tourists are not keen on this outcome, he says.