Paris versus the provinces: How France’s tourist industry has changed

Paris versus the provinces: How France's tourist industry has changed
Photo: AFP
With the virtual collapse of international travel during the Covid-19 pandemic, France's tourist industry has been badly hit. But the effects are not being felt equally across the country, with many places actually seeing more tourists than usual.

Tourism makes up around 10 percent of the French economy, so international travel restrictions have seen losses of billions of euros in France.

“The immediate impact of the pandemic is at least €30 to €40 billion,” France's tourism minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne told the Journal du Dimanche in August.

However things are far from black and white and while Paris was noticeably emptier than usual this summer, other French regions were actually busier than normal.

So how did Covid-19 impact France's tourism industry and will the changes become permanent? Here are some of the emerging trends.

Heavily dependent on international tourism, Paris was badly hit by travel restrictions. Photo: AFP

Trend one: Paris was the big loser

The streets of the French capital were quieter than usual this summer. 

Not only did the capital lose almost all of its long-haul tourists – visitors from the US and China are usually well represented – French people also seem to have chosen other destinations than Paris for their holidays. 

Like Marie, 38, a Paris-based primary school teacher, who usually spends the summer in the capital with her family and her husband's family, who come and visit from the south of France.

“This year, we decided to go and visit them instead,” she told The Local. 

They packed their bags and headed to the Auvergne region (south-central France) and Toulon, on the south-east coast near Marseille. 

READ ALSO: Why some French resorts are busier than ever despite travel bans and quarantines 

And this summer's lack of visitors has had a crushing impact both on the sector and on the capital at large. 

In total, Paris lost €14 million the first six months of the year compared to last year, according to Valerie Pecresse, the president of the greater Paris Île-de-France region.

“It is with great sadness that we have seen the pandemic shatter an extremely dynamic and flourishing sector,” she said.

Although 80 percent of French hotels had reopened in mid-August, only 47 percent of those in Paris were able to welcome visitors again, according to the tourism report premier bilan touristique de la saison touristique estivale.

Most of the Parisian luxury hotels also remained closed during the summer and waited until September to reopen, due to the absence of their biggest-spending clients (who generally come from the USA, Asia and the Middle-East).

“Parisian luxury hotels were aiming to re-open at the beginning of July, but there are no reservations,” François Delahaye, operations manager of the Dorchester Collection (which also manages the Plaza Athénée and Le Meurice hotels in Paris) told Le Figaro in June.

In order to make up for lost revenue, some of hotels had to close their gourmet restaurants. That was the case for Sylvestre Wahid's two-star restaurant at the Thoumieux hotel or the two-star Abeille restaurant of the Shangri-La hotel. 

The winners: the provinces

But if Paris seems dependent on foreigners, where were the French tourists who were asked by the government to do bleu blanc rouge tourism (ie holiday within France)?

“I wanted to stay out of Paris because it felt less healthy than the provinces,” Alexia, 23, told The Local.

The French coastal resorts were among the most popular destinations, particularly the northern coast along the Channel, which, according to the Banque des Territoires, registered higher visitor numbers than in August 2019. 

“The Cotentin Peninsula [in Normandy] responds to the French people's current needs: holidays close to home and in the great outdoors,” vice-president of the Normandy region David Margueritte told France Bleu

Cotentin and its surrounding areas recorded an 18 per cent rise in reservations compared to 2019.

Lucie, a mother of one, decided to visit a small town in Brittany for the first time this summer. “We chose to visit Pénestin because it was in a green zone and it felt the safest. We felt like we were getting a holiday from Covid,” she told The Local.

Outdoor attractions were also popular, the 900km cycle track Loire à vélo (The Loire by bicycle) saw 15 percent more bikes than the summer of 2019, according to the latest numbers. 

Outdoor holidays proved the most popular. Photo: AFP

Changing tourism habits

And it seems that some people are thinking of making permanent changes to their travel habits.

According to a study by Charentes Tourisme, 50 percent of the respondents said they wanted to change their travelling habits while 75 percent said they now favour destinations they can reach by car.

The study also reports that hygiene measures in hotels, Airbnb and B&Bs are now a “decisive criteria” when it comes French people choosing a holiday destination. 

New requirements may draw attention to towns that are not usually visited by tourists during this period.

“We have discovered Lille this summer and I think we are ready to go back next year because there are so many things we didn't have time to see,” Paris resident Annaëlle told The Local.

Being used to crowded beaches, she decided to go north for her summer holiday, getting away from Covid and the several heat waves that struck France this summer.

According to a study by l’Observatoire du marché touristique français (observatory of the French tourist market), French people mostly looked for trips to the countryside this summer, and tended to avoid cultural and seaside trips. 

Helping a sector in distress  

While some regions have had a better summer than Paris, the French tourism industry is still suffering.

“For a three-star hotel, we need to rent a room for a minimum of €100. Today, we are offering the rooms half-price in order to cover the costs”, Wu Quin, director of the Hipotel hotel chain told France Info

The French government announced in May that it had established a €18 billion rescue plan for the sector.

It includes government-guaranteed loans and an access to a fond de solidarité (solidarity fund) that is set up until the end of 2020 and targeted at restaurants, hotels, and other travel-related businesses.  

“Any blow to tourism is obviously a blow to the heart of France,” said former PM Edouard Phillipe when announcing the measures.

According to the French Foreign Ministry, France is the world’s leading destination with 89.4 million foreign visitors in 2018. 

The sector also benefits from an extension of the temporary unemployment scheme that was put in place at the beginning of lockdown.

Restaurants, hotels and other tourist can continue to receive help from the state so they can keep their staff on furlough until December 2020.

“It's clear that tourism professionals need long-term support,” the secretary of state for tourism, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne told France Info.

 

Though national tourism has helped some regions to stay afloat this summer, France, and especially its capital, are longing for its international visitors to return. 

By Gwendoline Gaudicheau


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