Paris has sprung back to life since France’s harsh lockdown measures began to gradually lift a month ago. Traffic jams have returned, stores opened up, and café terraces are again thronged.
But on a walk through the manicured Tuileries gardens last week, I noticed something that betrayed that this was no typical early summer day — it was too easy to score one of the green metal chairs dotted around the fountains and under shady chestnut trees. Usually on a sunny afternoon, you’d have to compete fiercely for such a seat.
Such is life in the partly reopened French capital, with a major driver of the economy still missing: tourists. France plans to reopen its borders with neighbouring countries on Monday and is keen for the Schengen zone to open to outsiders by July 1. For now, the absence of international visitors is keenly felt. The tour buses that usually clog up the streets around Opéra and the grand magasin department stores are nowhere to be found. With more time on their hands, café waiters, who are usually famed for their Gallic rudeness, are being disconcertingly nice.
The big unlock
The biggest milestone yet on Europe’s road to recovery comes on June 15 and 16, when nine countries, including Germany, France, Greece, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands, will open their borders to other EU nations. They join another dozen who already have their borders open to most of the bloc. Idiosyncrasies remain — Portugal is accepting arrivals from most of the EU, for example, but not Spain — and some countries, such as Malta, are still closed. Many EU countries are yet to allow arrivals from the UK but on Wednesday last week the EU said it hoped members would begin to open borders with the rest of the world from July 1.
In a normal year, Paris welcomes about 50m visitors, and France about 89m, making it the world’s top tourist destination. To help the tourism sector, the government has appealed to citizens’ patriotism by encouraging them to take “bleu blanc rouge” holidays within the country. But so far that has not translated into a wave of bookings, especially since the situation around border closures has been so uncertain, says Didier Arino, who runs a tourism consultancy called Protourisme. “Hotels in Paris are only about 25 per cent full for July and August, compared to the usual 70 per cent in summer,” he said. “There is very little demand.”
The biggest spenders are the American, Chinese and Russian tourists, whose likely absence this summer will hurt everything from high-end hotels to luxury goods purveyors such as Louis Vuitton. None of the 11 so-called palace hotels in Paris, which include the Ritz, the Bristol and the Four Seasons, have reopened and only a few are accepting reservations starting in August.
Outside the capital, the Cote d’Azur region, which is popular among foreign tourists, was less affected by Covid-19 so has snapped back to normal more quickly. For example, in Paris, restaurants and bars are only allowed to serve people at outdoor tables and not indoors, whereas elsewhere, they have resumed normal service. Visitors to Nice will find prices for hotel rooms much lower than normal, according to data collected by Protourisme.
It is not all bad in the capital, though. The Palace of Versailles reopened last weekend and the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Disneyland Paris are slated to follow suit in the next few weeks, which should help draw visitors back. I, for one, plan to visit the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay as soon as they reopen so as to savour the collections without battling through the smartphone-wielding hordes.
Mayor Anne Hidalgo has allowed cafés, restaurants and bars to annex more space on pavements and added pedestrian-only streets, giving the city a joyfully chaotic vibe lately on summer nights. She has also expanded bike lanes so the brave can tour the sites on two wheels.
The city’s renowned but tiny cocktail bars, such as the Little Red Door and Bisou, have turned to selling drinks in takeaway plastic pouches. Some have resorted to opening discreetly for friends, speakeasy style. “Don’t tell anyone,” one of them told me recently. “We don’t want anyone to know we’re back.”
It was a perfect morning for sightseeing on the Acropolis, with a hazy view of the Aegean Sea in the distance and a light breeze keeping off the early summer heat. But the crowds of foreign tourists that would normally be massed outside the Parthenon, Greece’s 2,400-year-old architectural masterpiece, were nowhere to be seen.
Irini, a tour guide sitting on a stone bench near the ticket office, complained she had “no work at all” this week. “We’d expect to welcome 5,000 visitors a day just off cruise ships at this time of year. But the cruises are cancelled because of the virus and the airport’s hardly been operating,” she said.
Greece opens officially to tourists from 29 countries on June 15, including its Balkan neighbours, most EU states, Australia, New Zealand and China. There will be random testing for coronavirus at Athens airport and at road borders; those who test positive will be quarantined for 14 days at the Greek state’s expense. Direct international flights to the Greek islands will begin on July 1, when Greece plans to open to visitors from additional countries (including the UK and US).
Social distancing measures are already in place on the Acropolis with signs in English and Greek saying “keep a safe distance” taped to the ancient paving stones. Plexiglas panels keep visitors apart on the staircase that mounts the Propylaea, the monumental gateway to the hilltop.
Agnes, a Belgian student waiting for a flight home after a spell at Athens university participating in an EU Erasmus programme, said she felt privileged to visit a tourist-free Acropolis. “It feels like being invited to a private viewing of a huge open-air exhibition,” she said.
During my visit last week, workers in yellow hi-vis vests were cleaning a rocky surface beside the Parthenon, still partly shrouded in scaffolding, close to 40 years since the restoration programme began. A magpie perched boldly on a truncated column as two archaeologists strolled past discussing different models of crane for moving large marble blocks.
“It’s easy to lose your sense of time up here, it’s so peaceful,” said Maria, a French language teacher hired as a temporary guard for the summer. She had spotted a handful of Greek couples and families with children during the morning but not a single foreign tourist.
In Plaka, the shopping and restaurant district below the ancient hill, the mood is much less relaxed. Cafés are almost empty and many shops selling summer holiday clothes and speciality products are not yet open, more than three weeks after Greece lifted lockdown restrictions on retailers.
Haralambos, a café owner, said most of his customers are Athenians shopping in Plaka at weekends. He hopes the government’s decision to slash value-added tax on coffee and soft drinks this month will give business a boost.
“But I’m worried that tourists will decide to go straight to the islands in July and miss out Athens for fear of coronavirus. That would be disastrous for our neighbourhood,” he said.
As I wandered through Madrid’s Plaza Mayor last week, it was the first time I could remember contemplating Carlos Franco’s florid mythological frescoes on the Casa de la Panadería unrushed and in complete silence, save for the nervous tittering of the city’s ubiquitous sparrows. Nearby, in the Puerta del Sol, there were none of the usual men in Mickey Mouse suits offering photographs for a fee; parents watched their children circle on scooters in peace. And standing alone in a gallery in the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, I could almost feel dawn’s first heat roll off George Inness’s sunrise painting “Morning”.
Spain’s government is hoping that such quiet experiences are short-lived — tourism accounts for more than 12 per cent of Spanish GDP and employment. Spain’s has been one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, and its borders will reopen later than much of Europe, on July 1 (for those coming from the EU and UK).
There is, however, a pilot project that will allow 10,900 German tourists to visit the Balearic Islands from Monday (having their temperature taken on arrival and providing a telephone number for follow-ups to identify those who develop Covid-19 symptoms).
While Spain’s beach tourism operators look to save the season, many in Madrid appear to accept that summer is a lost cause. With punishing dry heat that pushes locals to leave town if they can, Madrid largely shuts in August. In Spain’s capital, the question for those in tourism is more whether the country can avoid another outbreak in the fall.
“Restaurants, museums, shows — tourism in Madrid involves closed spaces and people may be afraid of that,” said Verónica García Castelo, who runs the five-star Heritage Madrid Hotel in the smart Salamanca neighbourhood. “Perhaps tourism will begin to return in September but if Covid reappears with the cold, that could set us back.”
García Castelo’s family’s three hotels will only reopen in September, she says, as 90 per cent of the guests at their two five-star hotels come from abroad, and two-thirds of those come from outside Europe. And she is not the only Madrid hotelier to delay opening. The city’s AEHM hotel lobby expects only 62 of its 320 member hotels to open by the end of June, and 83 by the end of July.
Others in the Spanish tourist market are moving what they can online. Insider’s Travel, which offers half-day Madrid tours and week-long escorted cultural tours across Spain, is launching £45 virtual Spanish winetasting events until their physical tours return.
“One scenario is to return in the fall, another is springtime and the darkest is 2022,” said Insider’s director Joanna Wivell. “I’d like to think that in spring we’ll be running our longer tours. It’s definitely a waiting game for us at the moment, until we know that we can run a tour that’s safe for our clients.”
Back in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, swifts swirled overhead as I paused for a drink, alongside only a handful of other customers, in the shaded terrace of Magerit, one of the few open cafés on the square. With health restrictions cutting seating by half, business has been slow and two-thirds of the 30 employees are still on Spain’s furlough scheme, says manager Fernando Seguro. But come September, he hopes to welcome the café’s usual masses of English and Italian customers “with open arms”.
Living in Rome means being in such regular proximity to historical monuments that, somewhat shamefully, you can start to take them for granted. But in recent weeks, as Romans have returned to the city’s streets, the quietness and lack of crowds have made them impossible to ignore.
Passing by the Colosseum on my way to work normally involves jostling through large groups of tourists and guided tours. This month, the various buskers, mimes and performers who line the sides of the Via dei Fori Imperiali have gradually started to reappear, but business is slow.
While Italy was one of the European countries worst-hit by Covid-19, its government has taken the decision to be one of the EU’s earliest countries to fully reopen its borders in an effort to save this summer from being a catastrophe for hotels, restaurants and other businesses that depend on the vast number of visitors from abroad each year.
Nevertheless, last week the queues that normally snake around the Colosseum were barely a trickle. One couple smiled as they told me they had travelled from the north of Italy to visit places in Rome that are usually overrun with tourists, including the Vatican, Trevi Fountain and Villa Borghese. Another couple were visiting from Venezuela, having already booked their trip many months before the outbreak.
With much of the world in lockdown, our travel writers journey in their imaginations, to tell the story of a distant place they love and yearn to revisit
Others, however, are less keen on the lack of visitors. Angelo Rossi, a 63-year-old who runs a tobacconist on a street just off the Colosseum, described business “as almost dead”. “There are no tourists at all at the moment,” he told me. “We had one large group come in, maybe 12 people a few days ago, but otherwise I have barely seen any.”
Other iconic Roman landmarks remain eerily empty. The Spanish Steps has only a handful of people walking past, when normally it is overrun with crowds of tourists posing for selfies. Whereas in the past fights were known to break out between jostling visitors to the Trevi Fountain, it now feels uncannily quiet.
And Rossi, the tobacconist, is not optimistic that the tourists will be returning any time soon. “People are still scared to come and, until they are not, we are not going to get back to normal,” he said.
It may be awful for the businesses that are suffering, but Rome without tourists is more enjoyable than I have ever experienced it before.
In mid-June, Budapest’s seventh district is usually teeming with partygoing tourists, so much so that locals complain of overcrowding, noise, and occasional encounters with vomit — collateral damage of the Hungarian capital’s role as a centre for city breaks and stag parties.
This year, things are different. “The city is ours again,” a Hungarian friend exclaimed on a recent night out. We were in Koleves Kert, one of the seventh district’s “ruin bars”— hip open-air clubs in once-dilapidated factory buildings. My friend recalled that decades earlier — before the tourists arrived — this was where she and her friends used to go out. I was rather impressed by the fact that the bathrooms were the cleanest they’ve ever been.
Outside, the normally touristy Kazinczy street was far from quiet, but there was no need to jostle with the usual crowd of twenty-somethings.
Koleves Kert is a short stroll from the neo-Moorish Dohany Synagogue, one of the largest in Europe, an anchor of the Jewish heritage dotted across the city and especially in the seventh district, a former ghetto. The line to enter the synagogue usually snakes around an adjoining square that is, for now, empty.
The site is an important fixture for tour guide Agnes Antal, who specialises in the city’s Jewish heritage. Antal, 55, told me that while ordinarily she “could have worked eight days a week”, this year would be a “forced sabbatical”. Many of her clients, she said, are elderly people from the US and Israel. Antal, who began her career as a guide escorting groups of westerners across the country on horseback, said she had never previously missed a tourist season. But this year, she would primarily be tending tomatoes in her garden.
Across the Danube river, the leafier, hillier part of the city, Buda, is also slowly coming back to life. The city sits on a faultline, producing some 120 thermal springs that feed thermal baths, many of which together form a riparian line that has been healing visitors for centuries. The baths have reopened in Hungary, but only their outdoor portions: the Gellert baths’ beautiful baby blue art nouveau interior remains off limits. So does Rudas’ hazy and authentic Ottoman-era octagonal chamber, with its pinprick skylights.
The impact of the pandemic has been “devastating” says Csaba Faix, the managing director of the Budapest Festival and Tourism Centre. All major festivals, including Sziget, which last year had more than half a million visitors, have been cancelled. Ordinarily tourist offices sell 100,000 “Budapest cards” per year, giving discounts and entrance to attractions such as the baths; in almost three months, only one has been sold.
Faix holds out little hope for the return of long-haul visitors this summer, but remains optimistic about the city’s celebrated Christmas markets and — following the reopening of borders to EU arrivals last week — the return of city breakers. Unlike in many capitals, he stressed, here lots of the activities are outdoors.
“Restaurants are opening up, and there are a lot of exciting secrets in Budapest which are much easier to discover when the city is not suffering from overtourism,” he told me. “There’s never been a better time to visit.”
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