The long line to get into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is gone. The coronavirus outbreak in Europe is scaring away travelers and hammering tourism just as the high season is getting under way.
Thousands of people have canceled their trips to the region since the disease began to spread in Italy last month, drying up revenue for hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and conference planners across the continent. Those businesses are the economic lifeblood of many regions in Europe, clustered around its famed cultural attractions. The outbreak is costing the European Union’s tourism industry €1 billion ($1.1 billion) a month, said Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner.
“It gets worse and worse. The cancellations are piling up,” said Franck Trouet, spokesman for France’s Group of Independent Hoteliers and Restaurateurs. A third of its members have seen their revenue fall in February compared with a year ago, when business was already suffering because of the yellow-vest protests in France. In Paris, some cafes and nightclubs have seen a 40% drop in sales, he said.
Authorities around the world have told people not to travel to northern Italy, the site of Europe’s largest outbreak. That warning, however, is having a ripple effect far beyond the canals of Venice.
“The damage this is causing has the potential to be way out of proportion to the threat posed by the virus,” says Tom Jenkins, chief executive of ETOA, which represents European tour operators.
The outbreak comes at a particularly bad time for the industry: The start of the period when people book their spring and summer travel plans. That includes pilgrims coming to the Vatican for the Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday, and tourists from the U.S. and Asia coming to the continent over summer vacation.
Flight bookings to Europe the last week of February, when the Italian outbreak emerged, fell 79% compared with the same period a year earlier, according to ForwardKeys, which tracks travel data. In Italy, cancellations have exceeded new bookings over that time, the firm said.
The Louvre reopened Wednesday after closing for several days, because staff refused to work. They were spooked by the French government’s decision to ban indoor gatherings of more than 5,000 to contain the spread of the virus. The museum, which is the most visited in the world, welcomes more than 26,000 visitors on a typical day.
Given bottles of hand sanitizer by management, staff were back at work, watching small groups of visitors drift through the museum. The Dutch masters section—stocked with Rembrandts and Vermeers—was nearly empty. Michelangelo’s “Slaves” sculptures weren’t surrounded as usual.
And inside the room housing the Mona Lisa, there was plenty of space to gaze at Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece and other paintings of the Italian Renaissance.
“Normally, you almost don’t see the paintings there are so many people,” says Luis Filipe De-Souza, an attendant at the Louvre.
The Vatican is facing a sharp drop in visitors to the Vatican Museums, which bring in €40 million in profit in a normal year and are a key revenue source for the church. Vatican officials declined to comment on a report in an Italian newspaper saying the museums had experienced a 60% drop in attendance.
Organizers of ITB Berlin, the travel industry’s main annual conference, announced last week that they had canceled the meeting because of the coronavirus outbreak. German health authorities feared the event, which draws tens of thousands of people from around the world, could lead to a spike in cases in the country.
The cancellation has led to grumbling that the travel industry itself is feeding into global panic about the virus.
“It sends a dreadful signal,” said Mr. Jenkins, head of the tour operators’ group.
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