A tour operator stands under an umbrella with a British and American flag as she waits for customers. AP
Europe’s leanest summer tourist season in recent history is drawing to a close, six months after the coronavirus pandemic hit the continent
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.
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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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
With more than 12,000 infected and a peak of 330 new cases a day in late July, the country has been hit with travel restrictions from several western European countries.
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France has spent more than 32 million euros ($34 million) over 15 years to restore the building, and the work is nearing completion.