Last updated: 12:01 AM ET, Fri November 20 2015

Attacks Casting Long Shadow Over French Tourism

Destination & Tourism | Lori Rackl | November 20, 2015

Attacks Casting Long Shadow Over French Tourism

PHOTO: Marion Fourestier, communications director for France Tourism Development Agency, talks to journalists and tour operators at a luncheon in Chicago Thursday Nov. 19. (Photo by Lori Rackl)

The full impact of last week’s deadly terrorist attacks on France’s tourism industry — a key part of the country’s economy — isn’t likely to be known until early next year.

“February, March and April are big for us in terms of reservations, and that’s when we’ll see what happened,” said Stephane Ballot, deputy director of the U.S. arm of the France Tourism Development Agency.

“Of course, we’re thinking these tragic events will have an impact on tourism,” Ballot said. “Hopefully, if everything remains OK, people will be coming back to France. No one knows and understands better than Americans that this is the world we live in today.”

Ballot touched on the recent tragedy during a luncheon Thursday in Chicago which was aimed at promoting travel to France in 2016. Several big-ticket happenings are on tap next year, including a month-long soccer tournament, Euro 2016, starting in June, and the 100th anniversary of World War I battles of the Somme and Verdun.

Thursday’s tourism event, one in a series of visits by French tourism representatives to U.S. cities this week, was planned long before last week’s massacre. Officials contemplated canceling their tour in the wake of the attacks, but they decided “that would send the wrong signal.”
“We thought it would be best to show something positive,” said Marion Fourestier, the New York-based communications director for the tourism development agency, Atout France.

Representatives from Normandy and the Midi-Pyrenees regions were among those at the luncheon, touting their domains’ respective offerings while being understandably anxious about the fallout from events that claimed the lives of 129 people in Paris.

“The best support you can do … is to ask your people, the American citizens, to come and visit France,” said Philippe Guerin, chairman of the Midi-Pyrenees regional tourism committee. “Go to Paris. Go to Toulouse. Go to Bordeaux, Marseilles, to say, ‘We are here and we are with you.’ Life must go on.”

Tourism is a major driver of the French economy.

“It’s more than 8 percent of the GDP,” Ballot said. “It’s very important to us.”

Some 84 million foreigners visited the European nation last year. This year has been shaping up to post even better numbers, despite January’s high-profile shooting rampage at the offices of the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo.”

“In the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo, there was an impact [on tourism], but mostly from European countries,” Ballot said. “From the U.S. market we didn’t see much of an impact, mostly due to the very good exchange rate with Europe.”

Last week’s attacks pose a much bigger threat to tourism, given the broader target and the fact that at least one of those believed to be responsible is still at large.

The vast majority of cancelations after last week’s terrorist assault came from the Japanese and other Asian markets, Ballot said. On the U.S. side of things, business travel appears to be more vulnerable than the leisure market, he added. (Business travelers also account for a smaller share of visitors to France — 30 percent — compared to leisure travelers).

“Right now, for the U.S., we are more concerned about the corporate market,” Ballot said. “It’s where we see the most of the cancellation. On the consumer side, we are monitoring that very closely. We did see some cancellation but not too much. November is not a very big month for reservations anyway, and the cruise industry had finished all their trips for the year.”

French people remain in a state of shock over what happened last week, said Edouard Valere, deputy marketing manager for tourism in Normandy, which is less than an hour from Paris by train. But they’re determined to carry on with their lives, as evidenced by this week’s rally cries on social media — #tousaubistrot — summoning Parisians to head to the bistro.

“We will remain French,” Valere said. “We will go to the café. We will go to the terrace and drink wine, go to the theater. We won’t stop our way of living, and we advise you to do the same.”

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