The slow return to Paris: how tourism is taking time to recover
As bistros go, L’Ami Pierre, a low-key establishment on rue de la Main d’Or in the 11th arrondissement, is as Parisian as they come. Black-and-white photographs, vulgar cartoons and framed Charlie Hebdo covers hang on the walls. Steak knives and wine glasses sit neatly on small tables laid with white tablecloths. With the first round of diners still to arrive, half a dozen regulars stand against the silver-topped bar, drinking wine and debating the gentrification of their neighbourhood.
The restaurant could probably seat about 30 customers. On the night of 13 November 2015, when Paris fell victim to a series of deadly attacks across the city– including at busy restaurant La Belle Equipe, just five minutes’ walk away – it managed to squeeze in 80 as terrified people took shelter inside. Its owner, Robin Greiner, pulled down the metal shutters on the front, offered everyone a couple of rounds of wine on the house and refused to let anyone leave until 4am.
Now, almost100 days on, though the memories of that night linger, Paris is back on its feet. But while locals are moving forward, visitors from other countries have been slower to return.
“We went back to normal because here, we don’t [normally] have many tourists,” says Greiner. “But we had a faithful Japanese clientele that would come because we’re featured in Japanese travel magazines. They disappeared overnight and they still haven’t returned.”
For businesses that do depend on tourists, it has been a difficult winter. November’s attacks took place predominantly across a multicultural, buzzing part of Paris: around the Canal Saint-Martin, rue de Charonne and boulevard Voltaire. The neighbourhood has a close-knit community of independent bars, restaurants and hotels, and is popular with younger visitors.
It’s chilling to imagine these streets falling eerily quiet but, in November and December, many of these businesses experienced a significant lull. It was into this climate that one of the city’s newest hostels, Les Piaules, was born. This trendy bolthole, with beds for 162 people, opened last December on boulevard de Belleville – home to a hectic street market on Tuesdays and Fridays – barely two weeks after the attacks.
On the first floor of the 1930s art deco building is a DJ bar, on the top, a roof terrace with views of the Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Coeur and La Défense. “[At first], we worried about the people we knew,” says Louis Kerveillant, one of three young entrepreneurs who founded the hostel. A friend of his, he tells me, was among those killed at the Bataclan theatre that night. “For the first two weeks, I was in shock,” he says. “Even after three years [of preparation] and a lot of money, we weren’t thinking about the work.”
The team decided to go ahead with the opening regardless: “Our role as entrepreneurs and business owners is not to close shop,” says Kerveillant. But foreign visitors took a rather different view. In December, occupancy was just 35%, in January it was 50% and only now has it risen to more than 60%.
“Guests said their governments were advising them not to come to Paris,” says Kerveillant. “This was frustrating.”
Another hotel that had a tough start is Hotel Providence (90 rue René Boulanger), close to Place de la République, which opened last October. “When the attacks happened, we lost 40-50% of our existing bookings overnight,” says owner Elodie Moussié. “Only since mid-January has it got better.”
Five hundred metres away, past streets still dotted with the odd soldier – Paris’s state of emergency, which was this week extended until late May, has prolonged the impact of the attacks on businesses – are two of the cafes that were targeted by gunmen last November. Cafe La Bonne Bière, on rue du Faubourg-du-Temple, and Casa Nostra (rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi) have both now reopened, but flowers and hand-decorated notes dedicated to the victims still line the street outside.
Inside La Bonne Bière, it’s difficult to imagine the events of that night. To a soundtrack consisting of French-language covers of classic rock tunes, people sit on the terrace drinking coffee and life continues as usual outside.
A group of US exchange students sit down for lunch, having come to the area to visit the République monument, which remains a memorial to those killed. They admit that they’ve been coming into the city centre less since the attacks.
“I had a friend who came over for Christmas,” says Andrew Calder, 30, from California. “All her friends were saying, ‘don’t go – you’re crazy’. I had to really reassure her it was OK. It seems the perception is that it’s still a dangerous place to go.”
Just around the corner is one of the area’s most popular venues: bar, club and restaurant Le Comptoir Général (80 quai de Jemmapes). Some staff members went to help at the restaurants that were targeted by the attackers and psychological support had to be arranged for everyone that works there. “In the short term, we really had to face the question: how do we go on?” says Céline Degrave, one of its directors. “We are a place of entertainment. How do you [keep] your will to entertain after that?”
Degrave says customer numbers fell by almost half for over a month, and that when people did come, “they would not stay long”. Le Comptoir Général teamed up with other local businesses to start a campaign – Le Remontant – to encourage people to go out in east Paris again, with bars, cafes and restaurants offering customers a special drink, shot, dessert or cocktail to be bought in the name of solidarity, with some proceeds going to the French Association of Victims of Terrorism (afvt.org).
“Maybe by March or April, things will be back to normal,” she says. “But the real test will come in May and June; these are [usually] strong months for bars and restaurants, with lots of long weekends, tourists and warm weather.”
While a bigger establishment like Le Comptoir can weather a storm, it is the smaller businesses, especially those that feed off the major tourist attractions, that have Degrave’s sympathies. “Visitor numbers to the Musée d’Orsay dropped by 40%,” she says. “I know a restaurant that [relied on these visitors] – none of the staff has been paid for three months.”
Saveurs and Co, a small cafe on rue de Bellechasse between the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée Rodin, says the tourists just disappeared at the end of last year. “We’ve been open since 2008 and December is usually a good month for business,” says owner Stefan Rouillier. “But last year, it was very sad and very bad. During the Christmas holidays, there were no tourists: no Europeans, Australians, Americans. Even now there are less. We think tourists will come back fully in April.”
But financial impact aside, those who still work and live there want visitors to realise that the spirit of Paris has returned. The attacks undoubtedly shook Parisians – perhaps more than they would like to admit – but the city is, on the surface, back to normal.