‘Like I own Paris’ – The rare foreign tourists seeing a very different side to the French capital

Long walks, no crowds and maybe a church or two: Despite missing out on museums and brasseries, the few foreign tourists in Paris are discovering sides of a city they could hardly have imagined before the Covid crisis hit one of the world's most popular destinations.

'Like I own Paris' - The rare foreign tourists seeing a very different side to the French capital
Some of Paris' most famous tourist sites are now largely deserted. Photo: Alain Jocard/AFP

While travel into France from outside the EU is almost entirely banned apart from a very few exemptions for essential travel, travelling for tourists purposes from inside the EU and Schengen zone is allowed – albeit with compulsory Covid tests and extra paperwork at the border.

IN DETAIL: The rules for travelling to France from within the EU

For Ginevra Morello, a student from Milan, it meant a chance for her and a friend to check off an item on their bucket list – have their portrait done by an artist on the Place du Tertre, the famed square perched at the top of the former village of Montmartre.

“Before there were so many people who wanted to do it, and now there are not so many people, so it’s an occasion for us,” Morello told AFP as birds chirped in the crisp sunshine – a sound usually drowned out by chattering throngs on the cobblestones.

She would have liked to mark the occasion with a celebratory drink in one of the postcard-perfect cafés, which like restaurants are closed.

“It’s a pity because I think the most beautiful thing in Paris is to visit the locals, the cafes and the bars,” she said.

Instead, foreigners find themselves strolling the streets, admiring the architecture of monuments they cannot visit inside, and making sure they get back in time for the 6pm curfew.

“It’s a little sad that there are so few people – you can tell that mostly it’s the French visiting,” said Paul Vida, an automotive quality control manager, after touring the Sacre-Coeur Basilica.

His strategy: Just pick a place and go, without worrying if it’s closed or not, and make sure to get back before curfew — “otherwise it’s a €135 fine!”

While shopping remains an option at smaller boutiques, the grand department stores like the Galeries Lafayette that usually draw tourists by the busload have been closed as a precaution.

But for many foreigners, the lack of fellow travellers makes taking in the sights all the more enjoyable.

Niall Carden, a 21-year-old Erasmus student from Ireland who studies in western France, warned that “public toilets are limited, very limited.”

“But the views!” he said on the nearly empty steps of the Trocadero gardens, gazing at the Eiffel Tower rising majestically across the Seine.

“I know, the pub life, the restaurant life is very sad, and even the fact that you can’t go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, that’s a bit frustrating, but you do have to appreciate the little things,” he said.

“To be honest, it’s quite quiet and a lot more peaceful. I kind of prefer it this way.”

Last month, foreign clients made up just four percent of bookings at hotels currently open, according to the Paris Region association of tourism professionals.

That translates into an average revenue drop of 73 percent for hotels compared to the same month last year, the association said – a figure that climbs to 88 percent for hotels within the city itself.

People still willing to come despite the closures and curfew face the additional expense of producing a negative Covid test upon entry into France, and usually when going back home.

In return, they get a chance to see the city a way few ever will: In 2019, before the crisis hit, Paris and the surrounding IÎle-de-France region attracted 50 million visitors, a figure slashed by two-thirds last year.

“It feels like I own Paris!” said Ivan Vdovicic, a 27-year-old optician from Switzerland, while enjoying an outdoor coffee at the Trocadero with a friend.

“It’s a bit weird that there are so few people on the streets,” he admitted. “That’s why I’ll be coming back to Paris when normality is back.”

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Tourism minister: Book your French ski holiday now

France’s ski resorts will be open for business this winter, tourism minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne has promised - but no decision has yet been taken on whether a health pass will be required to use ski lifts.

Skiers at a French Alpine resort
Photo: Philippe Desmazes / AFP

“This winter, it’s open, the resorts are open,” Lemoyne told France 2’s 4 Vérités programme.

“Compared to last year, we have the vaccine,” he said, adding that he would “invite those who have not yet done so to [book], because … there will soon be no more room.”

And he promised an answer ‘in the next few days’ to the question of whether health passes would be required for winter holidaymakers to use ski lifts. “Discussions are underway with the professionals,” he said.

The stakes are high: the closure of ski lifts last winter cost manufacturers and ski shops nearly a billion euros. 

This year ski lifts will remain open, but a health pass may be necessary to access them. The health pass is already compulsory for après ski activities such as visits to bars, cafés and restaurants.

COMPARE The Covid rules in place at ski resorts around Europe

Many town halls and communities which depend on winter sports have found it difficult or impossible to make ends meet.

“It’s time for the French mountains to revive,” Lemoyne said, pointing to the fact that the government has provided “more than €6 billion” in aid to the sector.

Winter tourism professionals, however, have said that they are struggling to recruit for the winter season.

“Restaurant and bars are very affected,” by the recruitment crisis, one expert told Franceinfo, blaming a lack of urgency from authorities towards the winter holiday industry.

“We are all asking ourselves what we should do tomorrow to find full employment in the resort,” the expert added.

Post-Brexit visa and work permit rules mean that ski businesses have found it difficult to recruit Brits for short-term, seasonal positions.