Pandemic turns summer into European tourism’s leanest season

Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_30853 Fourth generation tour boat operator Michiel Michielsens drives his electric boat down a canal in Bruges, Belgium, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Europe’s leanest summer tourist season in history is starting to draw to a close, six months after the coronavirus hit the continent. COVID-19 might tighten its grip over the coming months, with losses piling up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union. In the Belgian city of Bruges, white swans instead of tourist boats rule the canals, hotels stand empty and museums count their losses.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_49742 Swans swim under a canal bridge in Bruges, Belgium, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Europe’s leanest summer tourist season in history is starting to draw to a close, six months after the coronavirus hit the continent. COVID-19 might tighten its grip over the coming months, with losses piling up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union. In the Belgian city of Bruges, white swans instead of tourist boats rule the canals, hotels stand empty and museums count their losses.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_35292 A ticket vendor for a canal boat tour operator waits in his booth in Bruges, Belgium, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_54015 A couple in protective face masks consult a tourist map in the center of Bruges, Belgium, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_26936 Two people in a restaurant terrace overlook a canal with unused tourist boats still covered with their rain canvas on a canal in Bruges, Belgium, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_60536 A tour boat operator drives his nearly empty boat down a canal in Bruges, Belgium, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_63234 Horse and carriage tour operators wait in the center of Bruges, Belgium, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Europe’s leanest summer tourist season in history is starting to draw to a close, six months after the coronavirus hit the continent. COVID-19 might tighten its grip over the coming months, with losses piling up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union. In the Belgian city of Bruges, white swans instead of tourist boats rule the canals, hotels stand empty and museums count their losses.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_88607 A group of people, wearing protective face masks, walk by an exhibition advertisement for the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, Belgium, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_69815 Museum business director Jonathan Nowakowski speaks with a journalist inside the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, Belgium, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_39473 Two people walk by an empty couch in front of a painting, Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele by Jan van Eyck, inside the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, Belgium, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_71939 A tour operator in a protective face mask sits in an empty tour bus as he speaks with a couple on the market square of Bruges, Belgium, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Europe’s leanest summer tourist season in history is starting to draw to a close, six months after the coronavirus hit the continent. COVID-19 might tighten its grip over the coming months, with losses piling up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union. In the Belgian city of Bruges, white swans instead of tourist boats rule the canals, hotels stand empty and museums count their losses.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_75081 Two waiters, in protective face masks, wait on a nearly empty terrace at a restaurant in Bruges, Belgium, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_28517 Restaurant co-owner Luc Broes sits inside his empty dining room at the Duc de Bourgogne restaurant in Bruges, Belgium, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Europe’s leanest summer tourist season in history is starting to draw to a close, six months after the coronavirus hit the continent. COVID-19 might tighten its grip over the coming months, with losses piling up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union. In the Belgian city of Bruges, white swans instead of tourist boats rule the canals, hotels stand empty and museums count their losses.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_13371 An older couple sit in an empty terrace of a restaurant in a historic square of Bruges, Belgium, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_36697 A shopkeeper, wearing a protective face mask, waits for shoppers in an empty chocolate shop in the center of Bruges, Belgium, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_09404 A boy in a protective face mask looks into the window of a shop selling tapestry items in the center of Bruges, Belgium, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_39886 An employee looks out the window of an empty hotel room at the Duc de Bourgogne hotel in Bruges, Belgium, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_92707 Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoone speaks with a journalist at his Chocolate Line shop in Bruges, Belgium, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_47886 Two women, wearing protective face masks, walk by a gift shop selling tea in the center of Bruges, Belgium, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
Europe_Tourism's_Mean_Season_93445 A tour operator stands under an umbrella with a British and American flag as she waits for customers in the center of Bruges, Belgium, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Tourism sector losses have piled up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent's vaunted government support and social security system is under increasing strain to prop up the sector.
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BRUGES, Belgium (AP) — Bruges mayor Dirk De fauw first realized something was desperately wrong with European tourism when on a brisk March morning he crossed the Burg square in front of the Gothic city hall and there was nothing but silence.

“There are always people. Always,” De fauw said. That morning?

“Nothing. Nobody is on that large square” at the heart of one of Europe’s most picturesque cities, he said.

Six months later, as Europe’s leanest tourist summer season in recent history is starting to draw to a close, COVID-19 is yet to loosen its suffocating grip on the continent.

If anything the pandemic might tighten it over the coming months, with losses piling up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union, and the continent’s vaunted government support and social security system under increasing strain to prop up the sector.

The upheaval so far, the bloc’s executive European Commission said, shows that “revenue losses during the first half of 2020 for hotels, restaurants, tour operators, long distance train operators and airlines were roughly 85-90%.” No country has been exempt in an area spanning from Greece’s beaches to the trattorias in Rome and the museums of Paris.

And even now, the European Commission told The Associated Press, “bookings for September and October remain abnormally low,” as dire as 10% of capacity in Bruges. It dents hopes that a brief uptick in business in July would be a harbinger of something more permanent.

Over the summer, though, came fresh spikes in COVID-19 contamination, especially in Spain and France, new restrictive measures and regional color codes that spelled disaster for local tourism when they turn red.

It left the European tourism industry relying on hope more than anything else. That was evident on a late summer’s day in Bruges, when usually throngs of American, Asian and European tourists stroll along the cobblestone streets below the city’s gabled houses, bringing annual visits to over 8 million in the city of 110,000.

“The swans have it all to themselves,” muttered Michiel Michielsens as he slowed his boat behind a bank of swans on a city canal. On a normal day — not like the one when he had 114 customers instead of 1,200 — tourists instead of birds would rule the waters. Now a boat could be seen showing a single couple around instead of its normal load of 40 people.

For tourists who can live with wearing masks for hours, there are some advantages. In Bruges, it extends to the city’s famed museums, where the medieval Flemish Primitives take center stage. Instead of craning over other tourists flashing smartphones, any visitor could now be alone for minutes on end to study in detail one of Jan Van Eyck’s most famous pictures “Our Lady with the Child Jesus, St. George, St. Donaas and canon van der Paele.”

All this is bittersweet to museum officials though. Across Europe, just about all have had to close for months early this year, and the outlook is bleak.

Attendance has now slumped to a quarter of what it was in 2019 at Bruges museums. But during the uptick in July “we had 50%.”

“So it’s declining gradually. Every month we see the numbers declining,” said Jonathan Nowakowski, the business director of Bruges Museums. “I can tell you that we’re looking at losses of 3.4 to 4 million euros this year,” despite expectations being high in a Van Eyck memorial year with special exhibits.

“We had we thought we would have had huge numbers of visitors,” he said.

It all quickly trickles down to hotels, restaurants, shops and the survival of families. For those who own the building it is more manageable than for those who rent a building. With reservations down for the next months, some hotels will just close down, knowing the costs will never match the puny revenue. Others are using the low winter rates in summer.

A great many put staff on temporary unemployment, and they acknowledge government aid has been a help. But they fear that will whittle down soon, despite the 750-billion-euro ($888 billion) recovery fund that EU recently agreed to.

“In the next few months, we will see a lot of places that will go bankrupt. A lot of people will be unemployed,” said Luc Broes, co-owner of the hotel-restaurant Duc de Bourgogne, which overlooks a canal.

Social protection, he said, only goes so far.

“We also have to pay our rent for the building. We also have to pay all the staff. We have to pay the insurances. We have to — we are not protected. In the moment we can’t pay anymore, we will go bankrupt as well,” Broes said.

Despite the 19th-century novel “Bruges-La-Morte” (“Bruges, the Dead City”) that turned the city into a metaphor of melancholy and decay, there is a steadfast conviction that people can turn this around — that tourism will survive.

A special EU summit is October will examine how to reinvigorate and reform tourism.

Unsure how long the pandemic will last, Bruges has decided to forego any blockbuster exhibits. Instead, it will center on local artists, including a photographer tasked with showing the solitude that COVID-19 has brought to the city.

The question of whether there will be more lockdowns, nationwide restrictions or limits on international travel still haunts everyone. The European Union has seen nearly 141,000 confirmed virus-related deaths in the pandemic, and Europe as a whole, including Britain and Russia, has seen over 212,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Renowned chocolatier Dominique Persoone was lucky to survive on a big local fan base so he could do without the big cruise ship crowds that come and buy his chocolates from his shop by the cathedral.

“The hardest thing is that you don’t know what the future will bring. We don’t know how it’s gonna be in September, October, when the real chocolate season starts. Then it’s Halloween, Santa Claus, Christmas.”

Now, winter and more uncertainty beckons.

“We thought we were safe and we had a wonderful life. And, now, this is happening,” Persoone said.

___

Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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