What difference will new Italian trains make to rail travel in France?

A red-liveried rival is ready to take on France's TGV trains on one lucrative line from Paris, breaking SNCF’s long-running stranglehold on the country's high-speed rail services.

A bright red high-speed train pulls into a railway station
Trenitalia's Frecciarossa trains will soon be running twice a day between Paris and Milan, via Lyon. Photo: Piero Cruciatti / AFP

Italian company, Trenitalia, is set to start running services on the lucrative high-speed Paris-Lyon line from December 18th.

Tickets for the twice-a-day Frecciarossa (“Red Arrow”) service on the Paris-Lyon-Turin-Milan line went on sale on Monday, December 13th, starting at €23 in standard class, and €29 in business class. 

It will also offer a more exclusive ‘Executive Class’ ticket at €139 for Paris-Lyon and €165 for Paris-Milan, which includes an à la carte meal with waiter service and seating in a carriage that just 10 seats. A meeting room equipped with electrical outlets and a 32-inch flat screen, for meetings of up to five people, is also available.

A third daily train is expected to enter service later, Trenitalia said, while it confirmed that it has been looking at setting up operations on other French TGV lines. The company has yet to make a ‘concrete’ decision on any expansion.

The Italian rail operator has promised that its standard class tickets will be “sold at low prices” in an attempt to match SNCF’s budget Ouigo rail service, where ticket prices start at €16. Both Trenitalia and Ouigo ticket prices increase according to demand. Shortly after sales of the first tickets opened, the cheapest standard class seat available on the new service was €39, BFMTV reported.

SNCF, meanwhile, has countered Trenitalia’s Executive class, with a Premium service for business travellers on the Paris-Lyon line, including a personal welcome at the station. Onboard, passengers receive a meal and more comfortable seats. 

The French company also operates more daily services between the two French cities – one an hour compared with the two to three trains set to be run by the Italian operator. And, as for punctuality, it’s impossible to say for the Paris-Milan service because it hasn’t started running yet. But a former SNCF Networks employee  has pointed out on Twitter that 66.3% of Trenitalia TGVs were on time in 2019, compared to 77.9% for SNCF TGVs.

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‘A European exception’: How tourists are flocking back to France after Covid

France is looking forward to a strong summer for tourism as homegrown holidaymaker numbers are boosted by the return of international travellers after two years of Covid-19.

'A European exception': How tourists are flocking back to France after Covid

In February, revenue from international tourism in France “came close to those of 2019”, according to tourism minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne.

At €2.7 billion, revenues for the month were up €1.5 billion compared to last year – still down eight percent compared to 2019, before the pandemic, when France’s tourism sector represented 7.4 percent of GDP and 9.5 percent of jobs.

According to Lemoyne, France is “very well positioned” as the “number one destination for travel in Europe for Americans, Belgians, Italians and Spaniards”.

The French, for their part, are “a European exception”, the minister said, pointing out that 60 percent plan to remain in their own country over the holidays.

“With a domestic base that will remain very strong and the return of international customers, this means that we are in for a summer season that can be very, very dynamic,” he said.

But Didier Arino, director of the Protourisme consultancy, warned there could be trouble ahead.

“It is not the market that is going to be problematic, it is the cost of production of tourist stays, competitiveness, the suitability between the prices of products and purchasing power,” he said.

“The players are all increasing their prices, and right now it is going well because people want to enjoy themselves. But we are reaching the limit of what is acceptable for many customers.”

Globally, international tourist arrivals worldwide have more than doubled, up 130 percent in January 2022 on the same period last year, according to the latest UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) figures. 

In Europe, tourists are heading to France, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Iceland, but still not in the same numbers as before Covid.

Worldwide, there have been 18 million additional visitors, the UNWTO said, “equivalent to the total increase recorded over the whole of 2021”.

In 2019, global tourism revenues reached $1.48 trillion. That figure dropped by almost two thirds due to the pandemic the following year.

But UNWTO also highlighted how the Omicron Covid variant put the brakes on the rise, with international arrivals in January 2022 still 67 percent lower than before the pandemic.

Larry Cuculic, general manager of the Best Western hotel company, is optimistic. “I travelled earlier this week and I can tell you that the airports, the international terminals in the US are very crowded and there is a demand or an interest in travelling to Europe, because for several years we couldn’t do that,” he told AFP. “We miss going to Paris, Rome and Berlin.”

Travel by Chinese tourists, the world’s biggest spenders before the pandemic, is also severely affected by China’s zero-Covid policy. But travel analyst ForwardKeys has indicated that the second quarter of 2022 still looks “more promising for international travel in the world than the first quarter”.