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.
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.
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.