The voices in the garden restaurant at the high-end Bulgari Hotel in Milan are what you'd expect: those of Italian businessmen and -women enjoying lunch and a cigarette on a pleasant afternoon. A few Americans mix in, relishing a European getaway they're not strangers to Italy. But that would not necessarily be true of the table of Chinese visitors. Or the busload of Chinese tourists gathering in front of the famed La Scala to hear a guide explain the history of opera. Or the others exploring the magnificent cathedral Il Duomo. Perhaps they arrived on one of the three weekly flights Air China now runs from Shanghai to Milan. And more can be expected, since Asian airlines jammed the books of Boeing and Airbus with nearly $20 billion of orders at the Paris Air Show in June.
China's tourists needn't leave the country for Western-style hospitality. In Sanya, along China's southern coast, Marriott recently opened a Ritz-Carlton resort. Both Marriott and Starwood are planting their myriad flags from the Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis to the more modest Courtyard and Four Points within China at a furious rate. At the same time, they are preparing to receive a wave of Chinese tourists, as many as 100 million per year by 2020, forecast to descend on popular destinations elsewhere around the world.
They will be tourists like Zhao Lin, a 34-year-old Google manager from Beijing, who says she loves Italy "because of the abundance of culture and history." And because of Prada, Gucci, Ferragamo and Fendi too. Zhao has made the haul of luxury goods that are requisite for rising Chinese women in the big cities. She and her husband, a technology manager, also own cars hers is a Volkswagen Passat. To retailers, people like Zhao are becoming increasingly important, says Ellen Jin, head of consumer markets for the consultancy KPMG China. "There are more young Chinese people, including women, running their own business or getting to executive management levels, and they have more disposable income," she says. "They see luxury goods as their just deserts. They want to reward themselves."
The world's largest multinational companies, many of them headquartered in the U.S., have been betting on the rise of the Chinese consumer for many years now. But as the economies in the U.S. and Europe have struggled to revive in the past few years, firms in nearly every sector, from automobiles to consumer goods to telecommunications, have placed a larger share of their chips on the Middle Kingdom. It is simply a matter of numbers: China's economy grew 9.1% in the last quarter, compared with less than 2% in most of the West. While incomes in the West are stagnant, individual Chinese are expected to get a lot richer.