By Alice LeFebvre with Julie Pacorel
French resorts and holiday destinations are buzzing at the height of the season despite the pandemic but, with foreigners staying away and the shadow of the coronavirus looming large, this is no ordinary summer.
A weeks-long summer holiday, often taken at home rather than abroad, is an annual sacred ritual for the French and the government actively encouraged people to go on vacation to help prop up an economy already ravaged by the pandemic.
The glitzy Mediterranean resort of Saint-Tropez—- usually a magnet for the international jet-set — is far from empty but it is domestic tourists who are filling the town and not free-spending foreign visitors.
“In summer, we normally have 85 percent international visitors and 15 percent French visitors. This year, 60 percent of the visitors are French,” Claude Maniscalco, the head of the Saint-Tropez tourist office said.
There are foreign visitors from neighbouring countries but the absence of tourists from further afield is the most marked difference, said senior municipal official Georges Giraud.
“We have a wealthy French and European clientele, who stay in high-end establishments. But they do not spend lavishly like our Russian or American visitors,” he said.
The resort of Saint-Tropez remains a byword for decadent glamour thanks to its associations with artists Matisse and Picasso but above all with the actress Brigitte Bardot who fell in love with the town while filming 1950s erotic classic “And God Created Woman” and still lives there.
Jean-Francois Tourret, head of the Saint-Tropez marina, said that his port was even busier than last year but the trends were indeed very different with more French boats and no super yachts from Russia or the Gulf docking.
“We are doing better than last summer, our port is almost full every evening, however we have fewer yachts and more boats under 40 metres,” he said.
MASKS IN THE HEAT
But this, as President Emmanuel Macron had already warned France, is a “summer like no other” and not even holidaymakers can escape the shadow of the coronavirus.
With infection rates now on the rise across France, Saint-Tropez this month made mask-wearing obligatory outside after a spate of cases in bars and restaurants.
Night clubs are still shut across France but this has not stopped impromptu parties taking place on beaches and in homes which can then become clusters for the spread of infections.
More bad news came this week when the British government imposed 14-day quarantine on travellers from France, which is likely to reduce the number of UK visitors to just a trickle.
“Having to wear a mask in this heat is going to make tourists cancel,” fretted Chloe Coulomb, who said that until now sales in the high-end leather goods shop that she manages had been steady.
At the Trois-Palmiers hotel, the receptionist says she has taken a dozen cancellations since the mask measure was announced. “It’s a shame, the hotel was full every night, it needed to stay that way,” she said.
The famous Senequier Cafe, a favoured haunt of Bardot, has been temporarily shuttered after some staff tested positive for the coronavirus.
NORMALLY FULLY BOOKED
Further inland in Provence, the southern French city of Avignon was dealt a hammer blow with the cancellation of its world famous annual theatre festival which usually runs for several weeks in the summer.
“We had just 20 percent of hotel rooms filled in July whereas normally everything is fully booked up one year in advance,” said Grazia Scarcelli of the Hotel du Palais.
The season has been a disaster for restaurants in Avignon. “In streets usually thronged with festivalgoers, there has been an 80 percent fall in custom,” said Patrice Mounier, head of the regional hospitality sector association.
River cruises have largely been axed and the number of visitors at the gothic Palais des Papes world heritage site has plummeted to 2,500 daily compared to a peak of 6,000 in August 2019.
It is the same story in neighbouring Arles where the annual photography festival — which normally brings in tens of thousands of visitors — has been axed.
But according to Mounier, it is not all bleak news, with the picturesque villages of the Luberon region of Provence and high-end offerings holding their own despite the crisis.
In the small town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue outside Avignon, tourists throng the narrow streets renowned for their antiques shops.
In her shop specialising in truffles, Michelle Colomina enjoyed a 40 percent increase in sales thanks largely to Germans, Dutch and Swiss with French tourists now providing a boost in August.
The rest of France will be hoping that trend is repeated across the country.