Industry hopes Notre Dame fire can reverse Paris’ tourism woes

The fire-damaged Notre Dame Cathedral attracting a crowd on April 16.
The fire-damaged Notre Dame Cathedral attracting a crowd on April 16. Photo Credit: Alexandre Caron/Shutterstock

Following months of violent protests that divided France and saw some of Paris' most historic landmarks defaced, travel professionals expressed hope that the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral will reunite the country and turn around the drop in tourism that France has been experiencing.

Hotel tracking companies have reported occupancy declines of as much as much as 7% in Paris since the so-called yellow vest, or gilets jaunes, protests began in November. The demonstrations have continued almost every weekend since, with windows smashed and fires set around the Champs-Elysees and other famous Paris sites as well as across the country.

Then, the world watched in horror as a key piece of France's cultural heritage was devastated by flames. And while the blaze was apparently an unrelated accident, Tim Fairhurst, secretary general of the European Tourism Association, predicted it might have been the final straw for Parisians weary of the riots, which began as demonstrations to protest rising diesel fuel prices.

"I think it's a reasonably safe bet that some or all of the venom will come out of the gilets jaunes activity, especially in Paris," Fairhurst wrote in an email. "For sure, any further vandalism of national monuments now that the most treasured has been devastated will be seen in a much less sympathetic light -- if there ever was any sympathy; that such behavior was/is the act of an unrepresentative minority of demonstrators is a detail that would be lost. The emergency services -- thus [sort of] the state -- have renewed prestige, and I'd guess the community will come together." 

Indeed, French president Emmanuel Macron last week called on citizens to move beyond the divisions and mobilize to rebuild the 850-year-old structure within five years.

Travel advisors who specialize in France said last week that they hadn't seen any cancellations. In fact, several thought the blaze might increase visits to the City of Light.

"Several clients traveling with me in the next months have written to say how sorry they are, to express support and to say how excited they are to be coming to Paris," said Bob Preston, founder of Globe Bleu.

Julie Mautner, owner of Provence Post Travel, said, "If anything, I would think this would make people more inclined to come to France. ... I think je suis Paris is the sentiment millions of people are feeling around the world today."

Tour operators agreed. Jeremy Palmer, senior vice president of Tauck Land Journeys, said, "In the short term, it's likely that a few people might decide to defer a trip to Paris to a later time, while many, many others will feel, admirably, a very strong urge to support the city and its people during a difficult time."

Derek Kehl, European operations director for G Adventures, said that while the fire will obviously limit the number of visitors inside the cathedral, "We do not expect it will have a detrimental influence on the overall flow of travelers to Paris this season. The City of Light is still a beacon of beauty, romance and resilience, and it stands ready to welcome new generations of guests" to its many other "European masterpieces."

Fairhurst said the closure of the 12th-century architectural marvel likely won't affect a lot of tour itineraries, since most don't make group stops because it is too hard to get coaches close to the cathedral.

Still, other iconic tour sites, including the Champs-Elysees, have also been affected as protestors have gathered there regularly on weekends in sometimes violent protests. 

In December, a group of journalists staying at Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris said they were locked in the hotel for a full day, and at one point they were moved to the basement theater or ordered to stay in their rooms as protestors pounded on the front doors, eventually cracking the glass.

Other cities in France have also seen regular weekend protests.

Last week in Bordeaux, the windows of multiple banks, real estate offices and other buildings near the city center had been taped or boarded up where thrown objects had left large cracks. And finding a street ATM that was still dispensing cash was almost impossible, as they have become the target of looters in the regular Saturday protests.

The demonstrations have been a drag on tourism. In Paris, hotel analytics firm STR reports, demand was down 6.5% in December, 4.2% in January and 4.4% in February. January's 65% occupancy level was the lowest for a January in Paris since 2016, when the market was in decline following the November 2015 terrorist attacks, STR said. 

Hotel benchmark service HotStats reported that occupancy in Paris fell 7% in December, 5% in January and 0.5% in February.

Fairhurst said that according to his members, the biggest impact was on the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions business.

With the cathedral's closure, G Adventures said it might alter its Parisian walking tours to instead include an inside look at the Sacre-Coeur Basilica on Montmartre near the Moulin Rouge.

However, Kehl said, "If our guests wish to pay homage to Our Lady of Paris from afar, our chief experience officers will do their best to support them."

Abercrombie & Kent spokeswoman Pamela Lassers said A&K guides were meeting last week to discuss what to do while Notre Dame is being rebuilt. 

"We will be recommending a visit to Sainte-Chapelle, an awe-inspiring royal chapel within the medieval Palais de la Cite and [once] home to Christ's Crown of Thorns," she said. "From Sainte-Chapelle, guests can view the exterior of Notre Dame as well as Paris' Left Bank. Most importantly, it is also under the stewardship of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, the organization that now has the task of rebuilding Notre Dame, so A&K and our guests will be financially contributing to the reconstruction."

Yaron Yarimi, a travel advisor with Frosch, said a few clients had scheduled upcoming visits to Notre Dame, but he would work to change those plans in the coming weeks.

"I think we will be seeing extraordinary involvement by people and businesses to rebuild," Yarimi said. "People are so incredibly touched by this."

Murielle Blanchard, an advisor with Black Pearl Luxury Services, reported that some of her clients had even offered to send money to help restore Notre Dame.

The agency community is similarly rallying. In a statement, Travel Leaders Group CEO Ninan Chacko said the nonprofit Tzell & Protravel Foundation has committed to fundraising to help rebuild Notre Dame. Travel Leaders Group will match the amount raised.

"We stand with Paris, an iconic city that has weathered challenges before," Chacko said. "And we know our travelers will continue supporting the city, whose many incredible cultural institutions educate and enlighten the world every day."
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Johanna Jainchill contributed to this report.

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