Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s big speech on Tuesday did not help much either. While other businesses open on May 11, hotels, restaurants and cafes will remain closed, and their future will not be decided until the end of May. The beaches also remain closed until at least the beginning of June. Bathed in uncertainty, tourism players compete with apocalyptic predictions – 35%, 45% or even 65% of all tourism-related businesses will not survive. The only person I met who saw any hope in the words of Prime Minister Philippe was Françoise Vaunac from the Union des Canotiers en Dordogne. While tourism remains on the ice, organized individual sports activities will be authorized again from May 11. So it’s a good way to paddle in a canoe. “We should be able to manage this without too much difficulty,” Ms. Vaunac told local journalists.
Although no one has the illusion that things are deadly serious, there are elements of hope. Not many, but some. First, however, the deadly serious pieces. As Minister of Tourism Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne himself authorized, the industry loses between 10 and 15 billion euros per month. Clarity is required and, for the moment, absent.
“The market is at a standstill,” says Hugh Atkins of Pure France, a high-end villa company run by the British. “Around the same time last year, we were desperately trying to get Brexit out of the front pages – but we really didn’t want it to be replaced by a pandemic.”
Certainly, last Friday, the government announced measures to ease the tourist pressure. Companies with up to 20 employees and a maximum turnover of 2 million euros can access a solidarity fund, paying 10,000 euros to those most affected. Employee charges for the spring have been canceled, as have rents for those on state-owned properties. Loan conditions have also been relaxed. Inevitably, this is considered insufficient. Hundreds of hoteliers are furious that insurance companies are reluctant to pay for the loss of income and that private owners are not all playing the game. A handful of the seaside resort of Châtelaillon-Plage in Charente Maritime – mainly men – are so annoyed that they took the Internet naked to make their point. The complaints have the support of great chefs (and fully dressed) like Alain Ducasse and Philippe Etchebest, France’s response to Gordon Ramsay.
At the same time, others, like Frédéric Bouscaren, owner of the Palavas campsite in Languedoc, need concrete directives, including an opening date, if only to be able to hire their seasonal staff. What if you don’t have a date and need to cancel summer 2020? “It will be a disaster,” he said.
Added to these concerns is the collapse of congress and conference activities – always early to cut business costs – and concerns about the post-pandemic world. Will people still have money? And, given the horrible bashing we have all had about the dangers of travel and mounting, will they be willing to consider a vacation? Even if both answers are “yes”, the requirements of health and social distance pose their own challenges. Spacing the tables means reducing the figures – and therefore the income – and other whistles, as placing room dividers in Plexiglas between the tables would be too complicated and, according to Marcel Benezet of the union of independent restaurateurs, “would make impossible the last vestiges of friendliness”. And the buffet breakfasts? Or menu cards, once fingered by the hundreds? The field is, at least, clear for innovation.
So much for the negative side. The bright side? The hopes of operators like Hugh Atkins are pinned in July and August. Said Justin Ashby of the British travel specialist Alternative Aquitaine: “Everything revolves around the scenario of school holidays. The key, clearly, is that the beaches are open.
That said, it is certainly true that French tourists are not counting on us this summer. We are usually their No.1 customers – we make some 13 million visits to it every year – but in 2020 the thought is that for obvious reasons they will rely much more on domestic custom, that is- ie French. Already a good percentage of French people on vacation in their own country. This should strengthen in the coming months, says Valérie Gillet from the Vaucluse tourist office in Provence. “We will do our main promotion closer to us, in the south of France, not beyond,” she said.
This will not solve the problem of chic tourism – five-star hotels and three-star Michelin restaurants which, in particular in Paris and Provence, are mainly reserved for foreign visitors. “We hope that our rich French people will stay at home – forgetting Mauritius or the Seychelles – to compensate. It probably wouldn’t be enough, but it could help, ”said Ms. Gillet.
Those who are nonetheless still concerned about British tourists are optimistic that weeks of confinement will translate into a desire to be free and free of fantasy. Justin Ashby said, “The lock-in in Britain happened to coincide with really good weather. Until now. Now it’s getting worse. At the end of three or four weeks, at least some people will be snacking. Investigations for the summer months were, he said, pending.
France of course has post-pandemic advantages. It’s not far, so convenient for a quick return if the blockages are reimposed or if you want to be at a reasonable distance from the NHS. Thanks to the Chunnel, it is accessible without the need for planes, ferries or trains, all of whose future operations remain opaque. And it’s full of villas and cottages, rental apartments and lodges which – there is a consensus here – could be better placed than hotels if and when the journey starts again. You can lock yourself in independent accommodation with your loved ones without having to meet unloved ones at the hotel reception, at the bar or in the corridors.
Anne Pedersen, of the French Tourist Office in London, said: “I am planning a first return trip – perhaps to visit family and friends. So many Britons have second homes in France that they will want to escape there. The villas would also be vital, especially for multigenerational vacations now that “the lockdown has taught us how much we could miss the family.” Ms. Pedersen felt that northern France, Brittany and Normandy could particularly benefit from their usefulness for Great Britain.
Another advantage: France has a lot of nature. Another consensus seems to be emerging – that once unlocked, vacationers will want fresh air, wide open spaces and as pristine nature as possible – somewhere, as Anne Pedersen put it, where one “could be cured and dream of better days. “
“Rediscovering nature is a serious trend in travel,” said Valérie Gillet – and Justin Ashby: “There is a growing feeling that people want fewer long-haul flights, focusing on low-impact travel that appreciates and respect the environment. France responds to this need. It is perhaps not surprising that the specialist in Aquitaine, Mr. Ashby, particularly meets the needs in Aquitaine, whose beaches in the Atlantic are generally less crowded than those in the Mediterranean.
Last advantage: French tourism has a long history of rebounding from the disaster. He did it after the two world wars – travel guides were published as early as 1917; non-recovering soldiers received free trips to tourist sites to bring the PR message home, return to peace – then after the 1929 crash and riots of May 1968, which also brought the nation into focus dead. With this in mind, some French professionals, at least, remain confident. “The tourism industry is very creative,” said Valérie Gillet. On its own patch, the cancellation of the huge Avignon Theater Festival (in July) had for example given rise to a proposal for Arts Week in October.
So he will come back. The maintenance of the Tour de France, reprogrammed at the end of August, will send a positive message to the world. Before that, in the short term, it will depend on how the conditional easing of the May 11 lockdown works and on government decisions later this month. So will be reassured, or not, the Frenchwoman who wonders about her naturist holidays near the Mediterranean: “It will be a little bizarre”, she said, “wandering with nothing but a facial mask “