Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Visitors are down 11 percent, and now an emergency committee is asking why.
This summer, the Paris tourism industry is wondering what hit it. The city has seen an 11 percent drop in visitors since January compared to the same period last year, resulting in estimated losses of €460 million.
This is a specifically Parisian phenomenon rather than a French one, as outside the capital the country’s visitor numbers have actually gone up by 1 percent. Such is the alarm in Paris that France convened an emergency economic committee on tourism for the first time this week, to get to the bottom of the problem and find solutions. So what’s been going wrong?
The main knock to Paris’s popularity can hardly have escaped anyone. Last November’s horrific attacks on Paris, which left 130 Parisians and seven attackers dead, have shaken the world. Coming as they did on the heels of attacks in January 2015 on the offices of magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket, the November attacks may have had an especially deterrent effect on visitors because of the types places that were targeted. Major tourist sites were not affected, but November’s shootings all happened in the sorts of cafés, restaurants and venues that any mildly adventurous tourist might wander into in search of the “real Paris.” The wave of sympathy for Parisians was huge, but potential visitors can hardly be blamed for being spooked.
Locals nonetheless see the causes for the visitor slump as more complex than a response to the attacks alone. France and Paris have been going through a particularly rocky period recently, beset by strikes, demonstrations and floods that haven’t exactly made it look like an open-air fun palace. Some of this has no doubt had a knock-on effect on tourism. As I write, the Eiffel Tower is closed for the day—Bastille Day, no less—due to a strike against labor law reform. This follows closures due to strikes and fan unrest when France lost in the final of the Euro 2016 soccer championships. The CEO of a French tourist research group has claimed in the newspaper 20 Minutes that such disruptions are eating away at the tourism industry’s roots:
“Between attacks, strikes, violence during demonstrations, the conflict between taxis and ride hailing, gasoline shortages, floods, overflowing trash cans in the street for several days, bad weather, we have never accumulated so many negative phenomena that have damaged the image of the destination in the eyes of foreign tourists."
The image this paints is neither pretty nor entirely inaccurate. It may still be overstated. Such is the international perception of the French workforce’s assertiveness that many visitors have long come to France actively expecting strikes or protests. Still, the French rightly feel a little battle-worn right now, and as a result may be over-emphasizing their self-perceived flaws. After all, where in the world is entirely calm and orderly right now?
Among Chinese and other East Asian visitors in particular, the perception that Paris is not always a safe place predates last November’s attacks. Often traveling in easily spotted groups and seen locally as big spenders who carry cash, Chinese tourist groups have been targeted occasionally by criminal gangs. Anecdotally, East Asian visitors feel especially vulnerable to pickpockets and scam-mongers who can spot them easily in crowded places. As a Musée D’Orsay tourist development officer acknowledged to Journal du Dimanche:
“The Japanese especially, but also Chinese and Koreans are sensitive to security issues. They are very well informed on the subject through social media, which only amplifies certain phenomena.”
Americans, meanwhile, are not quite so ruffled. U.S. visitors to Paris have actually risen by 0.6 percent this summer, impressive when you consider that other European cities hit by terror attacks have fared much worse. Allianz Worldwide Partners reports, for example, that American travel reservations to Brussels have dropped by 30.4 percent, and to Istanbul by 43.7 percent. U.S. travelers nonetheless currently seem keener on smaller cities that are less likely to be terrorist targets. According to the same survey, the big winners in Europe are Dublin, Lisbon, and Athens, which all reported a 42 percent reservation rise.
It’s somewhat ironic that Paris is suffering these setbacks now. As the center of French national life, it may be showing some strain, but in its own municipal politics the city is going through a quite proactive period that should leave it less polluted, more bike-friendly and possibly affordable. Thankfully for the city, the tourist downturn may be lessening already, with early reports suggesting July may be a better month than June. Getting Paris tourism back on its feet may still take a lot of time, thought and good luck.