Off Beer, Bed Bugs And Borders In Flux: A View From France After 1 Year Of Covid-19

One year of travel (or not) during Covid-19 has provided a few surprises across the EU – Valensole, … [+]

On 11 March 2020, when the World Health Organisation officially declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic, the travel industry looked markedly different.

France was the number one visited country in the world and bed bugs were a growing problem in Paris–so much so, that a hotline was launched during Paris’ mayoral election. France had just gone through its biggest strike since 1968 and the Gilets Jeunes Yellow Vests had been protesting against social inequality by blocking key transport arteries and causing travel mayhem for visiting tourists. Incidentally, six months later, pandemic or not, bed bugs were still a problem.

One year on, and the early reports in February 2020 that ‘the novel coronavirus’ would cause a 30-40% plunge in French tourism have come to fruition. Paris’ empty city streets and deserted tourist sites came to symbolize the early days of the pandemic; rather forlornly, two Parisian streets in Montmartre had been dressed to look like 1942 for the shooting of a war film and, as reported by The Guardian, were left stranded in time until life resumed, complete with Nazi propaganda on the walls.

Life briefly came back to a French normal in June 2020–pension reform protests began again, a new cheese was discovered, bars reopened, as did EU borders. And thus began a very messy summer of non-travel across the EU.

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The U.K. opened its travel corridors, only to constantly shift where its citizens could visit, Sweden exchanged burgers for real passports, RVs had their moment in the global spotlight, the Vatican began cutting back due to a lack of tourist revenue and everyone imagined how hotels would reshape themselves long-term–maybe the answer was hotels without walls in the Swiss Alps, or breakfast in packages, paternoster elevators and cleaning done only at the end of the stay. With limited travel options available, private jets and space travel became the newest thing; the more expensive the vehicle, the more popular it became.

Street sets in Montmartre were abandoned during the March 2020 lockdown, leaving the area resembling … [+]

The drinks industry has itself been through quite a rollercoaster, particularly considering it was already suffering from a hike in U.S. tariffs on French drink imports. In January 2020, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie announced a new champagne partnership but for the majority of producers it has been a very bad year–10 million litres of beer had to be destroyed as bars remained shut, champagne sales slumped by as much as 70% and wine producers were forced to turn unsold wine into hand sanitizer. It was a very good year, however, for boxed wine (with sales rising up to 77%) and for said champagne, which Brad Pitt brought to market months later, selling for €330 ($390) a bottle.

The end of summer brought new conversations, such as potential air bridges between NY and London, as well as the Tour de France but it was a mixed picture heading into winter–400 million vaccines were ordered, Covid-19 testing was launched at airport departure gates, EU countries made different decisions on whether to open ski resorts and many fell back into marked lockdowns at the onset of 2021.

However, despite a failing Eurostar, the talk has been more optimistic since January. Cruise liners began demanding vaccinations before booking and immunity passports became the new travel accessory–almost one year to the day of its first lockdown, France has announced a trial of vaccination passports for flights. Plus, many European cities have rethought tourism and plan to reopen in a more sustainable way–Paris is greening the Champs Elysées.

After one year of living with Covid-19, the surprise is really how far everyone is now experts on traveling (or not) with a virus in our midst, how the language around testing (PCR, antigen) is in our common lexicon, and how we are envisaging vaccination passports as the new normal. The practicalities of circulating around other human bodies is now the essence of how we think of any trip–something that will surely manifest itself in our travel subconsciousness for years to come, regardless of how quickly we revert back to travel normal, whatever that is.

As France announces a relaxation on travel for 7 non-EU countries from 12 March onwards, all eyes are on how far the borders might reopen for summer, and more importantly, how.

I have lived in Provence ever since I exchanged my London city life for the south of France. I have a background in research, business and finance.

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