UPDATE 4-Richemont's Asia luxury bonanza slows
* Sees H1 net and operating profit both up 20-40 pct
* Asia growth slows, Europe supported by tourists
* Shares up 1.8 percent (Adds quotes from CEO, updates share prices)
By Emma Thomasson and Tom Miles
ZURICH/GENEVA, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Richemont, the world's second-largest luxury goods group, said sales growth in Asia had slowed markedly and Europe was now its fastest-growing region, helped by tourist spending including buying by Chinese visitors.
"Thank God for Europe," said Johann Rupert, the South African chairman and chief executive. "Thank God for Switzerland. Thank God the Chinese love Swiss watches."
"Plus, with the currency shift it's becoming expensive for them to buy in China, with the weakening of the euro, so they're buying more in Europe," he told reporters at the shareholders' meeting in Geneva on Wednesday.
With Europe remaining strong, the Swiss maker of Cartier jewellery and IWC watches kept its first-half outlook unchanged.
Rapid growth in Asia-Pacific has helped offset the impact of reduced spending elsewhere as austerity measures bite. But that effect could be fading as China's red-hot growth starts to cool.
Rupert said growth had slowed as coastal cities reached the limits of their capacity, prompting Richemont to follow China's developers to inland cities that are key to maintaining growth.
"They are busy constructing 200 malls as we speak. Big malls. And we want to be there in the right malls with the right partners."
Richemont's sales to Asia-Pacific - which make up more than 40 percent of group sales - grew 12 percent at constant exchange rates in the five months to end-August, down from 46 percent in its 2011/12 financial year to March.
But sales in Europe rose 19 percent, only slightly down on a 2011/12 growth rate of 20 percent. Sales growth in the Americas slipped to 6 percent from 30 percent.
Rupert said he did not want to add fixed costs but Richemont was expanding in China because "that's where the money is". Other places that could attract the firm are Brazil and wealthy African oil-rich countries like Angola or Nigeria, he said.
FIND THE POCKETS
"Coco Chanel years ago said that money is money is money, it's only the pockets that change. We've got to find the pockets," he said.
He brushed off worries about Richemont's products being ripped off and faked in China.
"There's one thing worse than being faked: it's not being faked," he said, echoing Anglo-Irish playwright Oscar Wilde. "By and large, people who buy fakes know they are buying fakes and as soon as they get the money they buy the real thing."
But he said there were no plans to form a joint venture to court local customers. "The Chinese do not want to buy Chinese-made luxury goods," he said.
Richemont shares rose 1.5 percent to 60.05 Swiss francs in the session, compared with a 0.1 percent fall in the European personal and household goods index. French rival LVMH , the world's No. 1 luxury group, rose 0.2 percent.
"Richemont remains excellently positioned to benefit from the current boom in demand ... However, growth rates are slowing down versus a very high comparable basis," Helvea analyst Michael Heider said. "It will be more and more difficult for the company to surprise on the positive."
Last week, French luxury group Hermes posted strong first-half results as big-spending Asian markets, such as China, Hong Kong and Singapore, defied slowdown fears by producing 25 percent sales growth.
On July 26, LVMH said second-quarter organic growth in China rose 15 percent, in line with the first quarter.
Richemont said total sales for the five months to end-August rose 13 percent in constant currencies and were up 23 percent on a reported basis.
Sales of jewellery rose 12 percent, while watches were up 16 percent. Its Montblanc brand - which Richemont said did not benefit as much from tourist spending - grew sales 4 percent.
It confirmed an August forecast for net profit and operating profit to rise 20-40 percent in the six months to end-September. (Editing by Dan Lalor and Anthony Barker)
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