France seems to be falling off the itinerary of Chinese tourists, in a display of China's pique at French support for protesting Tibetans and angry demonstrations against the Olympic torch on the streets of Paris.
Some Chinese travel agents have stopped selling tours to France in recent weeks, in some cases removing offerings from their Web sites. Others said demand for such trips had plummeted by 20 percent or more.
"Our business as a whole is now 33 percent lower than that of the same time last year. Official trips, commercial business trips and regular tourist trips all dropped," said Zhong Hui, a manager at Carnival Travel Agency in the southern city of Shenzhen.
France's Foreign Ministry said this week that Chinese officials had issued a verbal order to travel agents to remove France as a destination and stop offering package tours to the country.
The China National Tourism Bureau declined comment, while the Beijing Tourism Bureau denied there was such an order.
The travel tiff is adding new strains to relations already tense from events this spring: China's suppression of demonstrations by ethnic Tibetans, violent protests during the Olympic torch relay in Paris and an ensuing outcry among Chinese to boycott French products.
There also is anger over the announcement by the city of Paris that it will offer honorary citizenship to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
Several travel agents said they had heard about — if not received — the verbal order.
"I was told by my supervisor that there might be an 'oral restriction' passed down from the Beijing Tourism Bureau in late May," said Sun Xiaobin, a manager at Youer International Travel Agency. "The restriction is on trips to France only, limiting the number of those trips."
However, Sun and others in the business also cautioned that Chinese tourism in general has flagged.
They cited higher-priced airline tickets because of soaring fuel costs, a falling stock market and a May Day national holiday that was shortened from a week to three days. Government offices are reducing overseas travel to free up money for reconstruction in quake-devastated Sichuan.
France has courted Chinese tourism, and newly prosperous Chinese have provided a booming market for French luxury goods. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, 700,000 Chinese tourists visited France in 2007.
The Paris tourism office cannot yet tell if there has been a recent drop in the number of Chinese visiting the French capital because the figures haven't been compiled, spokeswoman Marie-Christine Rabot said.
She added, however, that the office had been expecting fewer Chinese tourists this summer because of the Beijing Olympics. "The impact will be measured after the summer, by which time we hope everything will have returned to normal," she said.
An official at the French Embassy in Beijing said it had seen a "quite visible drop" in Chinese visa requests. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
China Travel Service, one of the country's largest agents, said it recently dropped group tours to France and did not expect to revive them in August. It said France remains a stop for multi-country European tours.
On the Web site of Beijing-based group tour agent China Posts and Telecom Tours, a subsidiary of financial giant Citic Group, France is missing from the list of 48 overseas destinations.
A state-run newspaper linked to the Communist Party's People's Daily cited a Chinese diplomat in Paris as denying an official travel boycott, but he said France needed to take stock of its actions.
"The obstruction of the Olympic torch and the honoring of the Dalai Lama as a citizen of Paris should cause France to reflect," the Global Times quoted consular officer Zhu Liying as saying.