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PARIS (Reuters) - At the seven-story retail temple that is Louis Vuitton's flagship store in Paris, there are signs of a slowdown in spending by Asian tourists - the recent driving force in a European luxury market defying recession.
"We don't have as many Chinese as before," said one shopping clerk at the world's biggest luxury brand by sales. "I think the whole year is going to be slow."
And Louis Vuitton, owned by industry leader LVMH, is not alone. Over half of 23 brands surveyed by Reuters at stores in London, Paris and Milan - including Gucci, Hermes and Jimmy Choo - reported lower demand from tourists, notably from Asia.
That could be a big problem in a European industry where Chinese shoppers account for about one third of luxury purchases, and where travelers represent up to 70 percent of buyers in segments such as watches and jewellery.
Most luxury goods groups will not publish first-quarter figures until at least later this month and LVMH declined to comment on tourist spending patterns.
But anecdotal evidence is growing of at least a temporary slowdown in spending by travelers, which analysts say could be linked to worries about the global economy and tax increases in Europe, as well as the tough stance taken by China's new president Xi Jinping on illegitimate gift-giving.
Brands whose store clerks told Reuters they had seen fewer tourists in recent weeks also included Bottega Veneta, Chloé and Christian Dior in Paris; Longchamp and Ermenegildo Zegna in London and Valextra in Milan.
"We have seen a slowdown in tourists buying, particularly Asian tourists," a saleswoman at a Christian Dior shop, another LVMH brand, in central Paris said. "The trend was fairly solid until September-October 2012 then it slowed down progressively".
At a Gucci boutique in central Paris, assistants were milling around, waiting for customers. "There has been a noted drop in footfall since the beginning of the year," one shopping assistant said. "It is true, these days we see fewer tourists."
The survey suggested, however, that business remained brisk at Chanel, Lanvin and S.T. Dupont in Paris and at Trussardi in Milan.
If tourist demand falls, brands with major flagship stores in European capitals such as Burberry, Gucci, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton, would be most affected, analysts said.
"A drop in tourist demand would impact their like-for-like sales," said one London-based luxury analyst who declined to be named, adding he had heard informally from industry sources that trading had worsened in Europe recently.
Price increases by brands seeking wider margins could be another factor affecting demand, at least in some cases. Louis Vuitton lifted prices on some of its popular canvas bags by around 10 percent in the euro zone.
Other, more temporary factors may also be at play.
Unusually cold weather in Europe, particularly in March, contributed to weak demand for spring/summer ready-to-wear collections already on offer in the shops, clerks said.
Tourist spending has become a hot topic for the industry since British handbag maker Mulberry issued a profit warning last month, which it partially attributed to a drop in tourist spending in London.
Although many European brands make most of their sales elsewhere, their home region is still usually a vital market.
Europe represents over 30 percent of total turnover for groups such as LVMH, Richemont, Swatch and PPR, the group which owns Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent and will change its name to Kering in June.
Official data on tourist numbers and spending usually take several months to emerge. But there are some signs to support the anecdotal evidence.
In Britain, the Office of National Statistics said tourist numbers were down 1 percent in January, after a strong November and December.
Data from tax refund company Global Blue, meanwhile, point to a moderation in spending growth by travelers.
Total sales to tourists in Italy, for example, rose 7 percent in February, compared with an increase of 19 percent in January and February combined, and a rise of 32 percent in December, Global Blue said.
"A slowdown was expected and it is just happening," said a sale assistant at Valextra, the Italian maker of colored leather handbags with a price tag of above 800 euros.
Italy's retail association Confesercenti forecast a decline of between 10 and 15 percent in the arrivals of tourists to the country for the Easter holidays this year compared with 2012, as a deep recession drags on.
In France, growth in spending by the Chinese nearly halved between October and February this year to 38 percent from 62 percent, according to Global Blue.
In Switzerland, spending by the Chinese rose 4 percent during the same period, against an increase of 33 percent, the previous year, the tax refund company added.
Another good indicator is Swiss watch exports. Exports to Greater China, including Hong Kong, fell 27 percent in February, the worst monthly performance in three years, compared with a rise of 4 percent in January and a 20-percent drop in December.
"Certain Chinese buyers will have to be more discreet about the watches they purchase," said Jean-Marc Jacot, chief executive of Swiss luxury watch brand Parmigiani Fleurier, referring to the crackdown by the Chinese government on illegitimate gift-giving.
Additional reporting by Pascale Denis, Lionel Laurent in Paris, Antonella Ciancio in Milan, Nick Edwards in Beijing, Brenda Goh and Oxana Andrienko in London, Emma Thommasson and Silke Koltrowitz in Zurich; Editing by Mark Potter