France starts cautious comeback

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A message of thanks on the Eiffel Tower to healthcare workers fighting Covid-19.
A message of thanks on the Eiffel Tower to healthcare workers fighting Covid-19. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Atout France
Felicity Long
Felicity Long

The topic of how and when to reopen various cities and regions shut down because of Covid-19 is on everyone's mind lately, and not just here in the U.S.

Europe is also grappling with these decisions, and France, one of the harder hit destinations on the Continent, is gradually moving forward, according to Anne-Laure Tuncer, USA director for Atout France, the France Tourism Development Agency.

"[On May 5] our prime minister, Edouard Philippe, announced a calendar for reopening ... that prizes prudence and patience," Tuncer said.

France began the first stage of that reopening on Monday, allowing people to leave their homes without the previously required attestation -- a certificate authorizing travel -- and to resume individual exercise beyond the 1 km restriction (about .62 miles). 

"Everyone will be required to wear a mask on public transportation, travel between regions will be limited and all trains will require a reservation," she said.

As in the U.S., the country is reopening region by region, and the ultimate decision on whether a specific area (regions will be designated red or green, depending on the severity of their respective outbreaks) can relax its regulations will rest with the local authorities. Gatherings are limited to a maximum of 10 people, and people over 65 are advised to limit their contact with others.

What does all this imply for inbound tourism, leaving aside other factors, such as the lifting of flight restrictions between countries?

The short answer is that it's still too soon to tell. A committee made up of various French ministers of tourism, overseen by Philippe, is scheduled for May 14, and the government will unveil official reopening dates for tourist establishments at the end of May.

But "open" doesn't necessarily mean what it used to mean, Tuncer acknowledged.

"For the foreseeable future, a crowded cafe or museum will be a thing of the past," she said. "If these businesses can reopen in June, there will most likely be measures put in place to limit the number of visitors."

Stores and open-air markets reopened May 11, with social distancing measures in place. So far, the plan is for libraries and small museums will reopen later in the month, but major museums, movie theaters, concert halls and beaches will remain closed until at least June 1.

Meanwhile, all cafes and restaurants are slated to remain closed until June 2, when the situation will be re-evaluated. 

The nation's minister of labor, Muriel Penicaud, is collaborating with professional organizations to put together a series of guidelines for reopening procedures for different businesses, and the various French destinations are working at implementing sanitation measures to adapt their cultural offerings to allow for smaller groups.

As to how the country is promoting inbound travel, Tuncer said, "a lot depends on when the government decides to reopen the borders. There has been some talk in president [Emmanuel] Macron's team about keeping the non-Schengen borders closed until September, so that would mean we would hold off on promoting inbound travel to the fall or later for long-haul markets.

"Like many countries, when travel restrictions are lifted, we expect to see more domestic promotion at first," she added.

Depending on when those restrictions are lifted, would-be visitors can get excited about some openings that had been scheduled for spring and have been postponed until at least September or later.

Those include the unveiling of the $100 million-plus renovation of the Hotel de la Marine, a Louis XV-era mansion at Paris' famed Place de la Concorde that has been closed to the public for more than 200 years and which, when opened, will offer an interactive museum experience as well as two restaurants overseen by two Michelin-star chefs, Alain Ducasse and Jean-Francois Piege.

Other openings in the works for later in the year include the Bourse de Commerce-Collection Pinault, a much-anticipated new museum in Paris; the Bassin des Lumieres light festival in Bordeaux; and the Normandy Impressionist Festival for lovers of modern art.

"For 2021, we anticipate the launch of the Vallee de la Gastronomie, an itinerary of food and beverage producers stretching from Dijon to Marseille," Tuncer said. 

Also in 2021, Antibes will host the 60th anniversary of the great Jazz a Juan festival in summer, and Normandy will observe the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Gustave Flaubert.

It seems like a lifetime ago that we were discussing overtourism in Europe, but I asked Tuncer whether this pandemic-induced tourism pause has given the tourist office time to consider strategies to transition to a possible return to those busy days.

"It's something that we've been conscious of for a while," she said. "For example, the Provence Alps Cote d'Azur region signed a partnership last year with Waze [an app that suggests alternate, less crowded travel routes] in order to improve traffic flow.

"Travelers will be looking at places where social distancing is possible, and France has the ability to answer this need," she said, citing the mountainous areas, like the French Alps and the Pyrenees as well as the countryside and secondary cities.

As of May 8, France had recorded nearly 26,000 deaths from the virus -- fewer than Spain or Italy but more than Germany -- but the numbers have been steadily going down.

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