|The Louvre / Korea Times|
By Tamara Thiessen
"I don't know how people are meant to fully understand the exhibitions without this, especially if they are independent travellers like us," said one visitor last week.
"I find it really amazing that they don't have Chinese audio tours for rent."
At the entrance, an audio guide desk is doing a brisk trade, offering handheld devices in six languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Korean and Japanese, but no Chinese.
The same goes for its downloadable audio guide mobile phone app.
Mandarin is, on the other hand, one of the 13 languages on the Louvre's rentable Nintendo 3DS console guides.
"So we downloaded another kind of vocal guide to tour around this place," said Gao Liting, who was travelling with two friends from Shenzhen.
"It's a Chinese app … we didn't expect to find there was no such thing, and luckily found this instead. "We were really surprised – they have Korean and Japanese audio guides, but there are more Chinese tourists here."
"More" translates to around 626,000 Chinese – 8 per cent of the Louvre's 8.1 million annual visitors according to the museum's figures.
The failure to cater to the landmark's second biggest group of visitors is reportedly costing more than just money.
"It is hardly credible," said a team of French investigative journalists from Franceinfo television channel in May, after revealing that the lack of Mandarin audio guides has created a black market.
Under the headline "Chinese tourists: a bad deal for the Louvre", the programme L'Angle éco uncovered a scam in the streets nearby, where a network of "entrepreneurs" were renting unofficial Chinese audio guides for €5 each (US$5.80).
In the report, a seller calling himself Jacques Ting claimed to rent out about 500 guides a day, pocketing up to €2,500.
In a secondary swindle, the same group of salesmen buy and resell hundreds of Louvre tickets a day, costing the museum €1 million a year, the show claimed.
The renters reportedly wait at the exit to recover audio guides and tickets from those they have tricked.
"This scam has existed for some time," a museum worker told the Post.
"Because the tickets which cost €15 are valid for the whole day. As to the illegal sale of audio guides, that is completely new to me."
The Louvre administration acknowledged the racket but played down the problem.
"The museum pays constant attention to any action that might aim to bypass the Louvre's regulations and preserve the best possible visitor experience," said Marion Benaiteau, a spokeswoman.
"Such fraud attempts are a global phenomenon and hit all sectors of activity. The Louvre … may be a victim though only in a marginal way."
Measures being taken to fight the fraud include signs in front of the Louvre Pyramid "warning Chinese visitors not to buy tickets from resellers".
Alerts are also being circulated at embassies, tourist offices and agencies, and through the media.
"Since January 1 we have ceased the bulk ticket sales system and replaced it with time-stamped and registered tickets, scanned to avoid fraudulent resale," Benaiteau said "Individual tickets are restricted to a maximum of three entries per day – but for tickets sold to groups, the maximum is just one entry."
The Louvre did not say when audio guides in Chinese might be available.
"I think one reason that they don't provide them is probably because most people until recently travel with a group, and have a translator-guide, and don't need them," said Zhang, another visitor from Shenzhen.
But as operators of other Parisian tourist attractions are aware, Zhang and her friends are part of a growing number of young, independent Chinese travellers.
François Navarro, managing director of Paris Region Tourist Board, said Chinese people visiting Parisian museums have very specific expectations and audio guides in Chinese were essential.
"Many museums have equipped themselves with these devices, but there is still a real question about hiring Chinese-speaking teams," he said.
While the Louvre and Musée d'Orsay understood "the importance of developing new tools" geared to the Chinese market, such as WeChat Pay and Alipay, it was not enough.
"The tailor-made welcome is a real need as well as signage in Chinese, teams able to express themselves in Mandarin – and audio guides," Navarro said.
The Louvre meanwhile has devised strategies to try to win back some of the lost revenue.
"When we notice a group with a guide who does not have the necessary supporting documents, the museum charges the guide a compensatory sum of €300," Benaiteau said, adding that guides "who violate the rules of access" can be banned. Over the summer, she said the museum will be cracking down on threats to its finances and reputation.
The visitors quoted in this report said they had not encountered the scam operators outside or inside the museum. Their increasing scarcity may be linked to police launching an investigation into them.