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TOURISM

Can tourism in France surpass pre-pandemic levels this year?

A report from the World Travel & Tourism Council predicts that the French tourism sector will bounce back strongly in 2022, potentially even surpassing pre-pandemic levels. We spoke to people in the tourist industry to see how they feel about the future.

Can tourism in France surpass pre-pandemic levels this year?
Photo by MYCHELE DANIAU / AFP

Covid-19 has battered the French tourism sector. 

In 2019, before the pandemic, tourism accounted for about 8 percent of French GDP and 9.5 percent of all jobs. The 90 million tourists who visited the country that year brought in an estimated €170 billion. 

While France is thought to remain the most visited country in the world, the last couple of years have been a disaster. Only 40 million people visited the country from overseas in 2020 (54 percent less than in 2019). Official figures for 2021 have not been released but the total number of foreign tourists was thought to be 50 million, according to government projections before the end of the year. Many have felt a real-life impact of this. 

Simon Burke left his job as an HR director for a Paris-based tour company called Fat Tire Bike Tours last year. Withering tourist numbers meant the company was running on a skeleton staff, making his role redundant.

But in September, he incorporated a new business – Txango Tours – offering tourists guided visits of Paris, Versailles and other parts of the country in motorcycle sidecar. 

“It is really a childhood dream. I’m feeling optimistic about this season,” he said. 

Simon Burke tests out a Txango Tour sidecar in Paris.

Simon Burke tests out a Txango Tour sidecar in Paris. (Source: Txango Tours)

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, Simon’s confidence is not misplaced.

The organisation predicts strong growth in the French tourism sector this year if restrictions continue to be gradually lifted. It said that tourism industry could bring €182 million into France in 2022 and that the number of people working in it could even surpass pre-pandemic levels. 

Data from France’s national statistical authority for the last quarter of 2021 showed that tourist accommodation bookings were 8.6 percent lower than the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.

It indicated a bounce-back in domestic tourism with residents spending just 3 percent fewer nights in hotels, campsites, gites and other tourist sites than before the pandemic, but international tourists were still hesitant, with 33 percent fewer hotel stays than in 2019. 

Even before the pandemic, domestic tourism (French people holidaying within their own country) accounted for 70 percent of all tourism revenue, and over the last two years the government has promoted staycations as a ‘patriotic’ option to support the tourism industry.

But for some, the outlook remains bleak.  

Clare Dawson, who is based in the Alpine resort of Tignes, runs a website called tignes.co.uk through which she and her small team rent out dozens of self-catered chalets, organise airport transfers and hire out ski equipment. 

In the past, Clare has relied largely on seasonal workers from Britain, mostly employed on part-time contracts. But because of Brexit, this option is now much harder – given the visa requirements. 

“We just can’t get the staff,” she said. 

“Of course, we are all hoping that Covid is a short term thing, but Brexit is permanent”. 

Local labour market conditions in France mean that the local population prefer to avoid temporary, part-time contracts. The hospitality sector had been struggling to recruit enough staff even before Brexit and Covid. 

Seasonal Businesses in Travel (SBIT) which is a collective of more than 200 British tourism businesses operating in the EU placed 7,000 adverts on for chalet worker jobs in pôle emploi centres during the 2018-19 ski season, guaranteeing that they would employ anyone who applied. In total, there were three responses to the ad, two of which were spam emails. 

The mountains though, haven’t escaped the pandemic altogether. Clare has had foreign guests cancel reservations at the last minute over concerns about the vaccine pass and ski lifts have been closed at various points during the pandemic. 

Her partner runs a ski rental company called Tignes Spirit which has cut staffing from 35 last year, to just 10. 

“For ski businesses, it has been a really tough couple of years,” said Clare. 

The French government has invested billions of euros in supporting the French tourism over the course of the pandemic and unveiled a further €1.9 billion in financing in November to help develop the sector further over a ten-year period – much of this funding has been earmarked for training people to work in hospitality roles.  

READ MORE What you need to know about the French ‘Tourism Plan’

Perhaps even more significant than all this spending is the easing of Covid restrictions, according to SBIT managing director, Charles Owen. 

“In terms of a bounce back, everything is relative,” he said.

“With the end of the UK-France travel ban and with restrictions being wound back, we are starting to recover. But the pandemic has caused a lasting amount of damage and many firms have not survived.” 

The US government issued a level-4 travel warning for France in December, placing it in the red do-not-travel category. This is particularly damaging to some in the industry. 

More recently the four-month booster shot requirement for the vaccine pass has created difficulties for some Americans, leading to the US Embassy issuing a warning for people to check carefully the vaccine pass rules before booking a trip. 

The candy-loaded piñata is the American market – we need them to come here,” said Simon.

The French government is talking about lifting restrictions such as mask-wearing and vaccine pass rules in the spring, when the health situation permits.

But there is no guarantee that rules would not be reimposed if a new variant emerges – epidemiologists have warned that this cannot be ruled out. 

For Simon though, the sooner that such restrictions are lifted, the better. 

“If France continues to require the vaccine to do anything in France, tourism will not return to the pre-pandemic levels we are all hoping for,” he said. 

“I think, really, restrictions need to go away. But that is just wishful thinking.” 

You can find all the latest on travel rules and testing requirements in our Travelling to France section.

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UKRAINE

How life in France could be impacted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on Thursday could impact the French economy especially when it comes to fuel and energy prices.

How life in France could be impacted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine on Thursday morning, with explosions heard in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. 

French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the invasion and called for an immediate halt to military operations.

In the build up to the invasion, France and the EU slapped economic sanctions on Russia, cutting some trade relations with the country. 

The French government has insisted that this will not hurt the French economy, with Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire telling the Senate on Tuesday that the French economy is only a “little exposed” to events in Ukraine. 

“Russia is not a major nation for France. The impact on the French economy will be limited,” he said. 

The GDP of Russia is smaller than that of Italy and France does not have a significant trading relationship with the country. 

“France exports less than €7 billion worth of goods per year [about 1 percent of all exports] to Russia,” said Le Maire, adding, “we import less than €10 billion euros per year from Russia – that is less than 2 percent of French imports.”

“I want to be very clear – we have a battery of sanctions that are much more penalising if Vladimir Putin persists in violating the law.”

While the stock market is based largely on informed speculation and not always a reliable indicator of things to come, it is worth noting that the CAC 40, the Paris-base stock index, had plunged by close to 5 percent by on Thursday in response to the invasion. 

Energy costs 

The main concern however stems from a potential rise in energy costs, with France importing about 20 percent of its gas from Russia.  

On the global market, gas prices shot up by about 10 percent on Tuesday, over concern about supply problems linked to the invasion of Ukraine. 

Speaking to BFMTV on Wednesday, Le Maire said that France could maintain its current freeze on gas and electricity prices if necessary. 

“The freeze on gas prices is set to run until the Summer of 2022. If we need to prolong it because we see an explosion in prices, it seems to me indispensable to do so.” 

The economy minister said that the invasion provided further proof that France needs to diversify its energy supply. 

As far as petrol is concerned, Le Maire cautioned, “we don’t know what Vladimir Putin’s decision will be and how high the barrel price will go.” 

The signs suggest that car drivers in France will likely suffer because of the conflict, with petrol prices already topping €1.70 per litre. 

Food prices 

Ukraine has traditionally been referred to as the breadbasket of Europe, due to its status as a major wheat producer. 

Fears over a Russian invasion, which have proved well-founded, have led the price of wheat to soar – this inflation will likely trickle down to supermarket store prices soon.  

The price of wheat smashed its previous record high in European trading on Thursday, reaching €344 per tonne, far above its previous record of 313.5 euros recorded late last year. 

Farmers in France are also particularly worried about retaliatory sanctions from Russia which would see French exports banned. 

In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, Putin responded to western sanctions by banning the import of EU agricultural products, which hurt the French dairy sector in particular. 

The head FNSEA, a French agricultural union, said that French agricultural exports to Russia have never fully recovered.

French businesses in Ukraine and Russia  

French media report that there are some 160 French businesses operating in Ukraine. It is unlikely that these will continue to function if the country descends into all out war. 

The French government has asked for French foreign residents of Ukraine to leave the country. 

Meanwhile in Russia, the presence of French businesses means that France is the second biggest source of foreign direct investment in the country. 

35 out of France’s 40 biggest businesses have branches in Russia, employing around 160,000 people. 

Renault and Leroy Merlin are both market leaders in the country.

In previous periods of tension between the West and Russia, French businesses have continued to thrive in Russia. 

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