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Somewhere between the tai chi, the pole dancing and the trapeze flying, and just before the tea ceremony and the mah-jong, I began to understand why Club Med thinks it can make a go of China. Where else can China’s increasingly spendthrift wealthy get all that, along with croissants for breakfast?
The French group was founded in 1950 and is credited with inventing the all-inclusive package holiday. It initially developed holiday resorts around the Mediterranean, then in Alpine ski resorts, before spreading out to further-flung destinations, including Tahiti, Florida and the Caribbean. Now, though, its focus is shifting east. I had come to see its latest resort, which staged a grand official opening last month and is set among the improbably-shaped Karst mountains in Guilin, in the south of China. It is the group’s second Chinese property and the probable harbinger of many more to come.
Fosun, China’s largest private conglomerate, thinks China is more than ready for Club Med. Chinese tourism is growing by leaps and bounds, and Fosun says the French company’s “one-stop, one-price model” is right for the country. “Club Med is very suitable for a Chinese lifestyle,” says Fosun chairman Guo Guangchang, because “Chinese society is organised around the family unit”. After taking a 7 per cent share of the company in 2010, the Chinese group teamed up with France’s Axa Private Equity to launch a takeover bid in May. The deal recently hit a snag in the French courts, where it is facing opposition from some minority shareholders, but Club Med says it is forging ahead in China, nonetheless.
By 2015, the company expects to have five resorts in China, from the ski slopes of Yabuli in the north (where the first Chinese Club Med opened in December 2010) to the beaches near Macau (where the company plans an operation on an island property owned by a Chinese manufacturer of air conditioners). By then, it predicts China will be its second-largest market.
At the new Guilin resort, the target clientele will be majority Chinese, about a quarter from other Asian countries, and the rest from Europe and the US. And in line with Club Med’s global strategy of taking the brand upmarket, it is hoping to attract the richest, best-travelled and most sophisticated Chinese.
That said, for a luxury resort in China, Club Med Guilin is emphatically bling-free, even understated. Set in 46 hectares of mountainous countryside, and part of a park 10 times that size, it comes complete with rice paddies and water buffalo.
The resort’s buildings are an eclectic mixture of abstract, poured-concrete structures, surrounded by an equally quirky collection of sculptures by renowned western and Asian artists. Every day, not long after dawn, the resort’s gentils organisateurs – Club Med-speak for staff – launch a flurry of activities that keeps guests busy until long after dark: from thrice-a-day yoga to pole dance training. I only had time for one full day at the resort but there was never a dull moment: tai chi at 8am in a thatched hut on the banks of a mountain-ringed lake, after which I failed to learn to pole dance, failed to learn to swing from a trapeze, and failed to coax my mountain bike up a hill. So, as consolation, I got an oil massage before heading off to watch a Chinese acrobat in toe shoes stand on point on top of her partner’s head. The evening ended with the kind of jolly singalong and amateur variety show that Club Med guests around the world seem to love and hate in equal measure. But in the conga line of gyrating guests that formed after the Guilin show, no one seemed to be complaining.
“The great change taking place in China is that the tradition of tourism used to be tour groups,” says Henri Giscard d’Estaing, Club Med’s chief executive. “But now wealthy Chinese are moving towards a more international standard of holiday where they want to be in exceptional places, combined with a high level of comfort and something to do.”
Nevertheless, the union of French and Chinese culture isn’t always completely straightforward. The resort is actually only managed by Club Med, and Cao Guangcan, chairman of Guilin Yuzi Paradise, the group that owns it, tells me: “They can’t use their French way of thinking in China.” Club Med originally wanted one mah-jong table, one karaoke room, and 400 chaises longues by the pool. But Guangcan insisted that mah-jong and karaoke were a huge part of holidaying Chinese style – and sunning by the pool was not. So the resort has 20 mah-jong tables, eight karaoke rooms – and 100 sunloungers. The pole dance studio, it seems, is also not standard issue in other Club Meds.
But for the rest of it? Well, it’s the closest thing to France within a two-hour flight from Shanghai. And since Shanghai has 23m people, that ought to be enough to guarantee success in Guilin – even if it does have a few too many sunloungers.
Patti Waldmeir was a guest of Club Med Guilin (www.clubmed.com). A week’s holiday there costs from £1,325 per person, all inclusive and with flights from Shanghai. Additional reporting by Zhang Yan