1. Travel and Living

Inside The $20 Billion Fight To Save A Battered Industry

To find a reason for optimism about the summer tourist season that starts next week in France, just pay a visit to the Maison D’Orride in the country’s southwest province of Béarn.

Didier and Marina Monteil fled Paris several years ago to buy a stone farmhouse where director Roger Vadim and his then-wife Jane Fonda once filmed “La Curée” (“”) in the 1960s. After the couple painstakingly transformed it into a thriving Bed & Breakfast, it gained a national reputation thanks to the vintage décor of its rooms and traditional dinners such as a hearty daube stew and pintade.

When the global pandemic gutted their spring business, the couple used the time to renovate a new guest room. Financial support from the national and local governments softened the economic blow. And with the summer approaching, Didier Monteil cautiously notes that his reservations for July and August are almost fully booked.

D’Orride is no doubt even more attractive these days thanks to its setting in a rural region barely impacted by the coronavirus. But Monteil is also pleased with the national campaign that lies at the center of efforts to resuscitate the nation’s tourism industry: Getting the French to explore France. Following cancellations by English and American guests, he said the rooms have been taken primarily by his fellow countrymen, along with Belgians and Germans.

Those guests will still be asked to follow some new rules such as using hand gel before entering rooms and maintaining distances with other families. He is slightly concerned that tourists circulating throughout France and arriving from outside its borders could provoke the dreaded second wave.

Beyond that, he knows many of his colleagues in the tourism industry have yet to see bookings resume. And so Monteil is uncertain if the country is really on the road to economic recovery or if an even greater shock is coming.

“We do not have much to complain about ourselves,” he said. “But there may be a wave of unemployment in the coming months and a social crisis which will undoubtedly be more serious than the health crisis.”

A Tourism ‘Marshall Plan’

This is the precipice on which France finds itself as the school-year finished last week. July 6 marks the start of the summer vacation season. While the pandemic brought the global tourism industry to a grinding halt, that seismic event hit France particularly hard. Now, as the pandemic recedes in much of Europe, the country that loves to boast about being the most visited nation is serving as a microcosm for how the tourism industry hopes to recover and reinvent itself.

France’s tourism industry is a vast political and economic machine that stretches from the heights of icons like the Eiffel Tower down into the tiniest corners of villages and the countryside where entire local economies depend on the annual flux of tourists to support artisans, restaurants, and recreational businesses. French governments spend vast sums every year restoring historic sites and promoting their destinations through campaigns designed by local tourism boards to attract those critical visitors.

To understand just deeply coronavirus turned those plans upside down, consider that France welcomed 89.4 million tourists in 2018. The country had set a target of 100 million international tourists for 2020, a goal that has been obliterated.

With those ambitious plans gutted, survival is now the theme. To resuscitate this sector, the French government announced a “Marshall Plan” on May 14 with €18 billion ($20.3 billion) in support. “Tourism faces the worst ordeal in modern history,” said then Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at a press conference. “Its rescue is a national priority.”

The package includes a mix of direct financial support, loan guarantees, extended unemployment benefits, and tax benefits to keep tourism companies afloat. At the regional and local levels, other governments are also rolling out additional financial benefit packages.

The national government also added some incentives for visitors to spend money, such as expanding the program under which employees receive vouchers to spend at restaurants. To make travelers feel safe, the government has developed a series of health standards for hotels and restaurants. And cancellation policies are encouraged to be generous, to lower the risk of booking a trip.

But at the heart of this rescue attempt is a campaign to get the French traveling within their own country. While the country is opening its borders again to many European nations, the expectations remain low for the number of international visitors this summer. Instead, a nationwide publicity campaign dubbed, “Cet été, je visite la France” (This summer, I visit France) launched last month.

The goal is to do whatever it takes to get the French out of their homes and going somewhere.

“The 9 million who usually go abroad, they’re going to rediscover France,” said Stéphane Villain, president of ADN Tourism, an association of French tourism boards that created a new interactive map to make it easier for travelers to know what destinations have reopened.

The call to arms envisages one supreme goal. France was number one in tourism before the pandemic. When this crisis finally ends, it wants to still claim that top spot. But in doing so, the nation’s tourism industry is trying to take this moment to transform itself by emphasizing so-called “slow travel,” and local journeys that reduce environmental impact and prepare the industry for a world where such pandemics could become increasingly common.

Pascale Fontenel-Personne, a National Assembly representative from Sarthe who co-chairs the legislature’s tourism advisory committee, said it’s critical to assume the world won’t have a vaccine for a long time. That means reshaping an industry to live in a world very different than before in a way that can still be profitable.

“Tourism is essential for the economy in France,” said “That economy has been based on tourism in large masses and many have focused on foreign visitors. We must build a new foundation. The tourism of proximity is the future.”

“This summer I visit…”

With the new national strategy defined, a jumble of city, department, and regional tourism boards have launched energetic publicity campaigns with variations on the themes of local, slow, and safe. The city of Lille, which bills itself as the leader in short stays and day trips, has created a sanitation label awarded to local businesses that follow strict rules related to hygiene.

The Saône-et-Loire Department, located east of Paris in the Burgundy region, is running ads on a popular evening French news and comedy program called Quotidien. The department is also placing posters in the Paris subway and engaging a PR agency to convince reporters to come to the area to write reviews.

“Our ambition?” the department wrote in a strategy document for its local tourism business. “Bring in as many tourists as possible (families, seniors, athletes, cycling enthusiasts, gourmets …), who are potential future residents of Saône-et-Loire, by making the best of a bad situation with an original communication campaign.”

The Tarn Department, located east of Toulouse, has developed a series of discounts with local inns and restaurants. Périgord, in the Dordogne region, is known as a capital of foie gras and has launched a #cetetejevisiteleperigord campaign while advising its local businesses to emphasize outdoor activities because tourists want to “travel in safety and avoid large crowds.”

In Haute Garonne, the tourism board is even more narrowly focused on getting local residents to get out and explore their department. “Get away and stay in Haute Garonne” is the rallying cry. A support package of €3.5 million ($3.95 million) includes a gift card (“Carnet de voyages en Haute-Garonne”) for local residents who can be reimbursed as much as €31 if they visit at least 3 of its 270 tourism partners, including restaurants, hotels, and attractions.

On the western edge of France, the Charente and the Charente-Maritime Departments are working together to attract visitors. This is the region where the ADN’s Villain is from and it boasts such destinations as the coastal city of La Rochelle, the city of Angouleme which is France’s comic book capital, and Cognac.

Villain said the departments’ strategy includes an expanded “chèques vacances” program. Typically, these are checks given by corporations to employees to spend on vacations. The Charente departments will offer any visitor a €100 rebate on the money they spend at participating restaurants, inns, or attractions if they stay a minimum of two nights.  

The region also launched a new mobile website to help visitors navigate the region’s offerings more efficiently. And it is picking up the theme of the great outdoors, in particular by emphasizing its extensive biking routes. Villain said tourists who come on bikes tend to stay longer and spend more money each day on local businesses.  

“The people are going to consume France differently,” Villain said. “The world needs slow tourism.”

The Occitanie Region covers a territory that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to Gascony and includes the Pyrenées Mountains, Toulouse, Montpellier, Carcassonne, and its famed fortress, and the Cevennes. As part of an €80 million financial support package, the regional government’s promotional campaign (Cet été, je visite ici en Occitanie!) includes a kind of crowdfunding campaign to “save our local commerces.” Travelers can select from a host of promotional deals, from camping to yoga classes. When they pay in advance, the region finds sponsors to chip in some extra money for the businesses.

The region has also drastically reduced regional train fares. Occitanie President Carole Delga has been lobbying the private companies that manage French highways to eliminate their tolls this summer. And the region has created its own discount card, dubbed “Occ’Ygène”, that will offer savings to everyone, but also includes additional support for lower-income families.

Jean Pinard, director general of Occitanie’s regional tourism committee, said the government can’t undo all of the economic damage done by the coronavirus. But it is firmly committed to helping rebuild.

“Since March, this industry went to zero and everything was closed,” Pinard said. “They can’t make that up. And this summer, there will still be fewer tourists. But we need to prepare for the future. There are new clients to find and we must help them take their vacations.”

Unfortunately, all of that promotion and aid wasn’t enough to convince Renée Jacobs and her partner, Wendy Hicks, to reopen their B&B this season. Three years ago, Jacobs, an internationally renowned photographer of female nudes, and Hicks, who is also her business partner, left behind the Los Angeles area and bought a house in Haut-Languedoc Regional Park. Over the last couple of years, the Maison des Rêves has hosted private photography workshops in the spring and fall. The luxury Moroccan décor inside made it popular during the summer months for tourists.

But the couple has had to postpone one workshop, they had some exhibitions canceled, and had booking cancellations. Fortunately, they had some ongoing income from sales of Jacobs’ prints. And the government financial support has helped in the short-term.”

“They offered €1500 per business, that basically covered the losses for a month,” Hicks said. “The problem is if you’re allowed to be open, they’re less generous.”

And that is indeed the problem they face. The house’s location should make it perfect for those hungry for a rural trip, with easy access to outdoor activities such as biking. But the sanitation requirements felt too overwhelming for them to manage. How do they clean the rooms and the common areas as guests check-in and out? Plus, they live in the house and worried about constantly being exposed to a stream of strangers.

So, they made the difficult choice to remain closed this season.

“In terms of the finances, I think I’m going to give us 4 or 5 months before really freaking out,” Jacobs said. “And then we’ll decide how freaked out how we need to be.”

Brave new travel world

Whether it’s hosts or tourists, nothing is going to look quite the same this summer. On a recent weekend in Occitanie’s Najac, a Medieval town in the Aveyron Department that is labeled one of France’s “most beautiful villages,” a small number of tourists wandered the cobblestone streets.

At the Bar De La Plage, the owners had removed all menus and replaced them with QR codes on the tables. Customers scan the code and it takes them to a menu on their smartphones.

Across town, Najac’s signature site is its 12th-century Royal Fortress. Only one group could enter the ticket office a time. Visitors were told wearing masks inside would be required. For those who didn’t have their own, the young man selling tickets gently grabbed a mask using a pair of tweezers and handed it to them. Brochures had been removed and replaced with QR codes that visitors could scan to launch explanatory videos on YouTube.

Inside the castle, playful signs used Medieval themes to remind visitors to maintain a distance of “one épée.” Other signs with arrows detailed a path for everyone to follow to avoid crossing others. And hand gel stations had been placed throughout the castle.

Further south in the Occitanie region, the Pic du Midi observatory, perched high in the Pyrénées, has also been busy preparing for the summer season by training staff on new hygiene measures. Because it had already planned to close for some weeks this spring for renovations, the site that has an inn, restaurant, and theater only lost about €1 million, according to director Daniel Soucaze des Soucaze.

Reservations for those rooms and the restaurant have been strong. But this summer will still be tough. The Pic du Midi won’t be able to hold a series of special events that typically draw strong crowds. And the number of people who can enter at the same time and visit the observation deck will be restricted and tickets must be booked in advance. As such, Soucaze des Soucaze said he won’t higher the 25 season workers he would typically bring on.

“We have to economize,” he said. “We hope to relaunch those events next year. We’ll have to ask our staff to work a bit harder this summer, but I think they understand. And we’ll try to move on from this difficult period.”

Darren Kennedy, the owner of the Chateau St Pierre de Serjac, is feeling even upbeat after several months of difficult work to reinvent his luxury property. Located in the Languedoc region of the Hérault Department, the castle is nestled among rolling fields and vineyards. It has 8 rooms inside as well as 36 villas scattered around the grounds. Visitors could choose to eat in the main castle restaurant or could opt to remain self-contained on their little corner of the property.

France’s generous unemployment system allowed Kennedy to furlough most employees while they received most of their salary, and then bring them quickly back to work after the nation’s lockdown ended. During that period, there were regular video calls to plan such things as a new marketing strategy.

“Some hotels seemed to have completely mothballed their properties,” he said. “Their social media was dormant. We took the decision quite early that would be in a better position than most because our property is different.”

Normally the property is booked far advance, particularly with large groups of business clients organizing events. But with international travel limited or uncertain, Kennedy set his sights on a clientele who tend to visit less frequently in the summer: The French.

“We’ve never really had to rely on the French market in July and August,” Kennedy said.  

“Be we decided that we were going to have to appeal to the domestic market and try to get our communications started.”

He began advertising with more French newspapers, dropped the cancellation window from 60 days to 7 days, and began working with more travel agents. His timing appeared to be good. Reservations for August are on track to match last year while July is down about 35%.

In addition to more French guests, he’s also seeing bookings from Belgium and Germany. Meanwhile, he’s been trying to persuade British guests not to cancel and hoping that the opening of travel with the U.K. could yet result in additional reservations for July.

When those guests arrive, they’ll find the reception desk behind plexiglass, all paper brochures and guest books removed, the daily menu on a chalkboard, staff wearing masks at all times, lots of gel, a cleaning team using bio-misters to sanitize rooms, and digital thermometers if necessary.

“We’re doing everything we possibly can,” Kennedy said. “We feel that we’re probably pretty well prepared. There’s always going to be an element of risk with other countries coming in. But you have to make sure as a business you can adapt. And right now, that’s what we’re doing.”

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