Starved of tourists, Paris counts on Parisians to pull through
Stephane Manigold's bistro in western Paris is bustling this summer despite the coronavirus crisis that has emptied the capital of foreigners -- largely thanks to locals taking advantage of his newly created outdoor dining area.
"Without the terrasse we'd be dead," Manigold said this week as diners finished off a palate of Korean-spiced octopus at tables spread across five parallel parking spaces outside his Bistrot d'a Cote Flaubert.
Restaurants, museums and other tourist draws across France were hammered by the two-month COVID-19 lockdown, and Paris in particular is still void of the millions of foreign visitors that are the lifeblood of its economy.
But while hotels remain mostly empty, many Paris cafes and restaurants are pulling through the crucial summer season despite strict social distancing rules.
City officials have helped by easing outdoor seating limits and clearing cars from parking spots to make space for additional tables, since many people are wary of contagion risk indoors.
"We can serve 36 people outside. Inside, with social distancing, we were down to 10 or 15. We couldn't have opened," said Manigold, who also runs the two-star Maison Rostang just around the corner.
"The terrasse allowed us to hire everyone back and even to take on an additional kitchen assistant and waiter," he said.
Manigold made headlines in May after successfully suing his insurer, French multinational Axa, to compensate his losses during the lockdown, a rare victory for restaurants which were told that most policies excluded such coverage.
To attract neighbourhood diners, he has set a midday set menu of 24 euros ($27), and he estimates this month's takings will be 70 to 80 percent of a usual July.
But his terrasse, encircled by an elegant white ironwork barrier, required an investment of 15,000 euros.
Many other restaurants are making do with plywood platforms and protecting them with painted wood pallets.
- 'Lots of families' -
Last year, the greater Paris region chalked up 50 million visitors, a number officials do not expect to see again anytime soon.
"For the French, it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to enjoy Paris and its hotels, restaurants, shops, museums and amusement parks without the crowds of foreign tourists," said Vangeulis Panayotis, president of MKG, a tourism consulting group.
But even with COVID-19 fears keeping many French at home for the summer holidays, those who do venture out mostly head for beaches or mountains rather than the capital.
Occupancy rates at Paris hotels were just 18 percent in June and 30 percent during the first two weeks of July -- "It's unheard of," Panayotis said.
Many shops are also struggling, with the traditional summer sales under way since July 15 drawing far fewer customers than usual, he said.
Part of the reason is that thousands of Parisians fled the city to country homes or other havens just before the virus lockdown was announced in mid-March, and many have yet to come back.
The city's population, usually around 2.2 million, dropped by 450,000 -- a 20 percent plunge -- and since the lockdown was lifted in May only about 56,000 have returned, statistics office Insee said this week after studying data from mobile telephone operators.
But tourist attractions are seeing homegrown crowds, such as the Seine river cruise ships that are usually swamped in particular by visitors from the United States and Latin America.
"Most clients are clearly French, with lots of families," said a spokesman for the catering and facilities management group Sodexo, which operates the Bateaux Parisiens ships.
And the Eiffel Tower, where Parisians have been flocking to rediscover their local treasure, has seen its chic Jules Verne restaurant booked solid every night in July, and nearly so for lunch.
Almost all the clients are French, who made up just half of its diners before the crisis, said the spokesman for Sodexo, which also runs the restaurant.
"Before, you had to book a table three months in advance, which put off the French, but now it's just one month," he said.
© 2020 AFP