In a normal August, the much-loved miniature tourist train in the French port city of Sète would be full of tourists from Britain and elsewhere, enjoying the ride.
Optimistically, the manager, Romiy Priore, took steps to make his attraction safe for Covid times. “With the virus, we decided to order disposable earphones for the start of the season on 23 June – 100 of them,” he says, huddling behind a Perspex screen in a cool cabin on the quayside. “It’s August, and I still have 70 left. That tells you how many foreign tourists we currently have.”
Priore, whose parents own the business, says that with takings down by around half overall, they may struggle to pay the company’s three full-time employees for the rest of the year. This week, along with tens of thousands of other businesses, he will be keeping his fingers crossed that the news from Britain is good.
With French coronavirus cases accelerating quickly – 2,288 were reported on Friday, a steep rise from Thursday’s 1,604, following a 33% week-on-week increase between 27 July and 2 August – attempts to resuscitate the tourist sector are now under threat.
As the French health ministry warned last week that the country could lose control of the virus “at any time”, the chancellor Rishi Sunak said the government “would not hesitate” to add France to its quarantine list should the situation deteriorate. On Thursday, Norway imposed a 10-day quarantine for arrivals from France; much more of this and the French holiday season could be dead before it has got going.
At Sète’s Grand Hotel, the receptionist Olivier Hernandez says he has already received several cancellations from prospective English guests. Restaurateurs dishing out oyster platters in the market halls report takings are down by 30%.
The new Covid-19 surge is already having its effect. Further along the Mediterranean coast, Marseille announced on Friday that mask-wearing would be compulsory in the old port quarter between 10am and 4am, following the imposition of similar measures in parts of Nice and St Tropez earlier last week.
Twenty miles away in the city of Montpellier, half the tables at cafes on Place de la Comédie, its main square, are empty. Laurent Lechuga, owner of Les Trois Graces brasserie, has had to make up the slack by opening an outdoors stand selling coffees and ice cream. He thinks a new UK quarantine on arrivals from France would be a mistake: “You will close your main gateway to Europe.”
Round the corner at Montpellier’s flagship gallery, the Musée Fabre, Mark – a British citizen who works there as a security guard – jokes: “The only good thing about Covid is that no one talks about Brexit any more.”
He agrees with further quarantines, although only “if the British economy can stand it”.
Ron Johnstone, a British writer at a nearby cafe terrace, is also philosophical, although post-lockdown he had to wait until July – when the blanket quarantine was lifted – to return to the UK. “What has to be done has to be done,” he says, pointing out there are more than 280 clusters under observation in France.
France, the world’s most popular tourist destination, faces huge losses without the foreign visitors who spent €57.9bn (£52.2bn) there last year, according to the national tourist development agency. The south-west Occitanie region also stands to lose heavily: with 14.3% of all overnight stays in France, it is the country’s third most visited area.
Figures released last week by Hérault Tourisme, the département where Montpellier and Sète are situated, showed that eight out of 10 tourist establishments reported reduced trade in June compared with the previous year.
Sète, hymned in song by the French musician Georges Brassens and on film by the directors Abdellatif Kechiche and Agnès Varda, has been building a more international tourist base in recent years.
But that all juddered to a halt earlier this year: the city’s new cruise-ship season, which only began in 2016 and brought in 115,000 passengers last year, was cancelled outright. So was the British DJ Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide festival, an increasingly significant fixture on the international music circuit. Other summer festivals, including Jazz à Sète and August’s Saint-Louis celebrations – which feature traditional water-jousting battles – have also been cancelled or scaled down.
In the absence of foreign income, domestic tourists have at least filled the gap, says Madeleine Isola, from Sète’s tourist office: “The season was slow to start, but once it did it exploded.” French visitors do, though, spend less than foreign ones, she says.
Down on the quayside, the boat tour operators report they are running at full capacity – though with “very few” foreigners. On the seafront, the ravelins of Théâtre de la Mer, a former 18th-century fort, are deserted – it has been repurposed as an outdoor cinema, which is apparently doing well. Barman Eric Bouteille, shucking oysters with a knife at the adjacent cafe, is determined to look on the bright side: “I think other regions have had it worse. We’ll get through it.” .
Additional reporting by Caroline Ragon. Some names have been changed.