Much has been made about the largest-ever group of Chinese tourists to visit Switzerland. We talked to some of them about their experiences and about the company that invited them to visit the Alpine nation.
Standing near the imposing Nydegg bridge in Bern, one man in his thirties stood out in the large Chinese tour group he was part of. Everyone in the group seemed to know him. When he was approached by swissinfo.ch, however, he declined to give his real name. He also declined to be photographed or filmed. But he told his story.
He was part of the second batch of the exceptionally large Chinese tour group that visited Switzerland in May. Some 12,000 tourists came on a promotional tour by Jeunesse Global, a US-based multi-level marketing company that primarily caters to Chinese-speaking people around the world.
The man we met in Bern described himself on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, as an “independent entrepreneur” born in the 1980s. He was well-known in the tour group because he recruited many of its members.
He claimed that he had directly and indirectly recruited more than 4,000 members in 17 countries since joining Jeunesse in early 2017. He also claimed to have an annual income of 1.5 million yuan (CHF220,000, $218,000), a significant sum even in the wealthy coastal Chinese province he comes from. The claims couldn’t be independently verified.
The group that the man in Bern was part of has caused a stir because of its unprecedented size. Never before has such a large group visited Switzerland. The tourists arrived in three batches of about 4,000 people each.
It has also raised eyebrows because it started a debate on whether Switzerland Tourism should assist organisations or groups that could be seen as controversial elsewhere.
Members of the Jeunesse network buy its products, predominantly its health supplements. They then collect points for promoting the sales of these products in their networks of members. These points can be exchanged for hard cash and, in the case of the tour group, for a trip to Switzerland.
Jeunesse says on its Facebookexternal link profile that it “creates positive impact in the world by helping people look and feel young, while empowering each other to unleash their potential”. It did not respond to emailed questions.
Chinese state mediaexternal link criticised its business practices. A US class action lawsuit that accused the company of operating a pyramid scheme was voluntarily dismissed last year for undisclosed reasons.
Switzerland Tourism said it was not its business to investigate tour group sponsors. “As a national marketing organisation for the holiday and meetings destination Switzerland, we do not judge business models of companies that come to Switzerland for business trips,” the agency said in an emailed statement.
It was unclear to swissinfo.ch how the company operated in China. We could not find public records of licences in the direct sales industry management system of the Chinese Ministry of Commerceexternal link.
During the interview in Bern, the tourist we spoke with skirted questions about the status of the company that apparently brought him such riches. “We distribute healthy and beautiful concepts, we sell valuable goods at good prices,” he said.
‘Product matters most’
No matter its status in China, Jeunesse appears to be huge. The company spent up to CHF14 million to pay for the travel costs of the gigantic tour of Switzerland, according to an estimate by Switzerland Tourismexternal link.
Jeunesse also has members in Switzerland. One such member, who declined to be identified over concerns that the publicity might hurt her business, is one of them. The Lausanne-based member has been part of Jeunesse, targeting Chinese-speaking residents, since 2017. She dismissed the company’s critics.
“The fact that there is a controversy doesn’t mean that there are problems,” she said. “For me, the product matters the most.”
For her, overly greedy practitioners – not the business model – were to blame for a questionable reputation of multi-level marketing firms in China. Members of the tour group from China interviewed on the streets of the Swiss capital agreed.
“As long as the [company’s] influence is great, there will be critical voices,” said Lai Yonglan, a visiting member from Guangzhou. “As long as the products are helpful to me and my relatives and friends, I don’t care about outsiders questioning it.”
For now, the PR stunt by Jeunesse appears to have been a success. Photos of tourists like Lai visiting places like the Rhine Falls in Switzerland have gone viral on Chinese social media. They will likely bring more members to the company and more visitors to Switzerland.