Coronavirus a 'catastrophe' for Paris tourist industry

PARIS, France – Rachid Saidi puts on a brave face at the Paris hotel he manages, forcing a smile even though the coronavirus outbreak threatens his livelihood as tourists avoid the City of Light.

Saidi runs the Monsieur Saintonge, a 4-star hotel in the heart of the hip Marais district, which has seen bookings drop by 30% to 40% so far in March.

"It is a difficult period, but we must be strong.... There's nothing else we can do," Saidi said as he pored over the bookings register.

"Despite cutting our prices in half...there has been no increase in reservations," he told Agence France-Presse (AFP). "Even if we make the room price one euro ($1.13), I'm not sure that more people will come!"

Hotels and restaurants across the city have been hit hard by fears over the virus, which has infected nearly 2,300 people in France and killed 48.

Business travel has been particularly dented as major events are canceled, including the International Tourism Trade show and Paris Book Fair.

The United States government's ban on travel from Europe and its call for Americans to avoid overseas trips will only add to the pain.

The French capital and the surrounding Ile-de-France region saw 50 million visitors last year, spending a total of 22 billion euros ($24.8 billion), according to the CRT regional tourism committee.

The downturn comes as businesses in one of the world's most visited cities are still counting the costs of a historic public transport strike that crippled Paris for weeks on end, as well as months of anti-government "yellow vests" protests that often turned violent.

"It is starting to feel like catastrophe. It is worse than the strikes, worse than the yellow vests," Saidi told AFP.

An enormous bottle of sanitizing hand gel sits on the reception counter, next to a tray of health ministry pamphlets on preventing the spread of the virus.

Fewer people every day

Staff have been instructed to intensify cleaning of the hotel's 22 rooms, "mainly to clean the door handles, to clean the remote controls well; everything that a client can touch with their hands," Saidi said, "and above all, to wash their hands every time they exit a room."

Cleaners have been issued special gloves "and there are even some who wear masks," he added.

A few steps from the hotel, Gilles, one of the city's famed open-air booksellers along the banks of the Seine, described the absence of visitors as "a catastrophe."

"We are in the middle of March, we should be starting to see more tourists...but this isn't the case," he said, nervously dragging on a cigarette.

"Tourists are scared to come, and I can understand that," he elaborated while greeting passing colleagues and acquaintances with an elbow-bump at a time that virus-spreading handshakes are being shunned.

Aisles were also deserted at a nearby souvenir shop selling Eiffel Tower keyrings, miniatures of the Arc de Triomphe, and T-shirts of football club Paris Saint-Germain.

"Every day, there are fewer people," said shop manager Aurelien Vargas. "Do you want to see my accounts ledger?" 

"Look here. On March 9, 2019, we made 911 euros ($1,025) in sales and on March 9 this year we made barely 177 euros," he said, showing the numbers in his book.

'Less crowded'

"The problem is knowing whether we will manage to pay the rent next month or not," he said, days after France's Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire warned the outbreak could have a "severe" impact on the economy.

As with everything, some see an upside to the dearth of visitors.

"It's much less crowded and it's slightly easier for us to move about and go see different museums. There are fewer queues and waiting, such as at the Louvre. We pretty much just walked straight into there compared to the queues that you'd normally have," said British tourist Chris Prousa.

At the famous Stravinsky fountain in the city center, a group of Spanish teenagers was also enjoying the relative calm.

"When I came here with my parents a few years ago, there were so many people that it was impossible to take a photo at the fountain," said 16-year-old Marina Pita, on a school visit.

Some of her classmates stayed at home "because their parents are afraid of the coronavirus," Pita added.

"We're here now, so let's enjoy our trip," she said, taking a selfie with her friends. – Rappler.com