The government is urging French people to 'staycation' this summer, to provide a much-needed boost for the country's embattled tourist industry.
But those who usually rely on international visitors are braced for a tough season, despite France lifting travel restrictions on all travel from within Europe and a selected list of 'safe' non-European countries.
Three British business owners who live and operate tourist businesses in France shared their concerns, as well as the measures they have taken to keep their businesses safe.
Natalie Elvy runs Frogs Rafting, an outdoor activity company offering white-water rafting, hydrospeeding, cano-rafting, canyoning and climbing in the Vallee d'Aulpes in eastern France.
Natalie Elvy and her family enjoying the spectacular scenery of the Vallee d'Aulpes. Photo: Natalie Elvy
She said: “We’re a bilingual couple and our area has a fabulous British community: about 70 percent of our clients are anglophone – either ex-pats living in this area or coming from Switzerland, or else people who have discovered the wonders of mountain holidays.
“As someone who usually over-reacts, over-worries and over-thinks problems, I very much under-estimated the reaction to Covid-19!
“It never occurred to me the lockdown would be as absolute and total as it was, and even now I struggle to believe what I would have found unthinkable at Christmas, actually took place.
“As a family we really appreciated the confinement. It felt like a treat to be all together and have the time to play games, go on (short!) walks, tend to the garden and just be.
“However it was different from a business point of view. Clearly we need to work to be able to afford to live here, but there are a huge number of businesses in the same boat, which is actually comforting – there's a sense of support in the community.
“Initially we hesitated about whether to open at all this summer, given the investment needed and the uncertainty of clients, but there is financial support available from government and banks and this has helped take some pressure off.
“In planning how to implement the new regulations we wanted to make them logical and easy to exercise – disinfecting the van and boats will become an integral part of our day and second nature to everyone working at Frogs, but it’s not something that guests need to be involved with.
“Our aim has been to ensure that while regulations are followed to the letter, guests won’t notice the effort that has gone into it, and neither guests nor staff will feel anxious about the ‘new normal’!
“We’re restricting all boats to ‘confinement buddies’ only – which means you’ll be on your own private boat. This new ‘exclusive experience’ could well be a keeper in years to come!
“Guests will need to bring their masks to wear in the van to get to the start of the trip, and our staff will be wearing masks and keeping a minimum of 1m social distancing. Other than these obvious differences, we’re hoping the ambience and fun of the outdoors will be the same as it ever was.
“Given our base is near Thonon les Bains, many of our guests take the opportunity to pop into the medieval village of Yvoire after a trip, or head on down to chill out on Lake Geneva. We get lots of people on Wednesdays who are taking a break from the world-class but full-on mountain-biking in Morzine, Avoriaz and Chatel.
“Increasingly groups (whether families or groups of friends) want the independence of making their own adventures in the mountains, rivers and canyons, and with so many activity options, it’s easy to cater to everyone’s holiday priorities.”
Find out more about Frogs Rafting here.
Lorna Endsor and her partner Dominic run a holiday-rentals business in the Morzine area of the French Alps, close to the Swiss border.
Lorna and her family enjoying the slopes around Morzine. Photo: Lorna Endsor
She said: “Until around late February 2020 we were having our best season to date in terms of bookings. This winter seemed to be just the right mix of sun and snowfall so all our customers reported that they’d had an amazing winter holiday. However, it became more and more apparent that Covid-19 was seriously affecting not just Asia, but now parts of Europe.
“March arrived and some existing guests started to cancel their holidays. There was still a lot of uncertainty but on the evening of Saturday, March 14th, everything changed.
“We heard reports that ski resorts including ours were to close early. At this point, around 50 percent of our properties were occupied (we’d already had many cancellations) and we had several guests due to arrive the following day.
“We jumped on the phones and called all the guests we could reach. Some had boarded planes but had not taken off, so we advised them to get off the plane if they could. Others were half way across France travelling in cars from the UK and we suggested they turn around and head home; fortunately we managed to get hold of most of our Sunday arrivals.
“The days that followed were spent trying to help existing guests in the resort repatriate themselves and the whole situation was a nightmare.
“Then we had to try and get properties deep cleaned, disinfected and shut down before the movement of people was prohibited at 12pm on Tuesday, March 17th as France entered full lockdown.
“A winter season usually lasts between 16 and 18 weeks and we rely on the income we generate during this period to keep our business and our family going through the rest of the year. I think we probably lost around a quarter to one third of our annual income.
“Our next biggest concern became the summer season and next winter too.
“It became very clear very quickly that if the summer tourist season was going to happen this year, and the resort was allowed to open, things would need to be different.
“Over half of our existing bookings have already taken us up on our offer to swap their dates free of charge.
“Of course everyone's situation is different, but with cancelled flights and airlines in difficulty, quarantine restrictions initially between the UK and France and an apparent general lack of consumer confidence, all of our June bookings and most of our early July bookings decided to either postpone until later in summer or move to dates in 2021.
“Morzine is not only where we live and work but it is also where we play and relax. The scenery is spectacular, the people are friendly and the options for different activities are massive.
“This year we’ll try to relax by the lake side and maybe even treat ourselves to well deserved beer or glass of rosé. Then, if we still have any energy left in us, an informal evening BBQ back at the chalet with neighbours or friends would just top off our perfect mountain summer's day in Morzine.”
Find out more about the chalets on offer at Mountain Xtra here.
Jo Watts runs the healthy-eating themed Wild Beets Kitchen in Les Gets in the Haute-Savoie département of France.
The Wild Beets Kitchen in Les Gets. Photo: Jo Watts
She said: “Our customers are a combination of French and British tourists and local expats, which makes for a really great mix of people.
“However, as we approached the Covid-19 health crisis in mid-March, it was very difficult to anticipate that things would change as quickly as they did. I was sure the situation was likely to result in a lockdown, but I thought we would have a bit more time to prepare for it. Instead, I had just a matter of hours.
“During lockdown my biggest fear was that the situation would continue for a long time.
“And the longer we were closed, the more difficult it would be to survive as a small business in a tourist town.
“I’m dependent on the winter and summer seasons to carry us through the rest of the year. I’d lost a month’s worth of income at the end of the Winter 20 ski season, which was a big worry.
“Whilst I think the French government could have given us more notice when the big shut down came, I also feel their response in terms of financial help has been very good. Financial relief systems for small businesses were announced quickly and were well communicated. It was a huge relief to know that I wasn’t alone and that there would be financial aid.
“I am sure that this summer will be different to the last couple here in Les Gets, but now that restrictions are easing, I am hopeful that we will still have a good season.
“I opened the café as scheduled at the end of May to coincide with the opening of the summer mountain bike lifts in the resort. Although we’re ready to welcome everyone, I’m anticipating that we’ll see our revenue reduced by around 25 percent this summer, but my team and I will still be here, ready to feed hungry holiday makers!
“We’d love to welcome tourists from other parts of France to Les Gets this summer.
“There's great downhill mountain biking on our local trails. Each summer they play host to some of the very best professional mountain bikers, which means they’re always challenging but well maintained.
“Ending the day with a nice cold beer beside on of our local fresh water lakes is just perfect!”
Find out more about the Wild Beets Kitchen here.