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26 Oct

Paris Gets Its Mojo Back

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The city has hired a PR team as part of its feverish efforts to boost tourism after a string of terrorist attacks.

Why was Rihanna meeting with the president of France? In late July, the pop star wore a comically oversized navy blazer and an ostentatiously classic French designer purse (Dior) to meet with President Emanual Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, at their residence, Elysee Palace. “I <3 Madame First Lady #girlpower” Rihanna captioned her Instagram story pic of herself with Brigitte, who wore faded skinny jeans for the appointment.

Rihanna/ Instagram
Rihanna/ Instagram

The buzzy photo opp belied a solemn purpose: Rihanna was petitioning the French president to pledge funding for global education as part of her work as an ambassador with the Global Partnership for Education. But its secondary purpose was to provide the newly installed Macron and his capital city with some extra cool points.

This summer, there was Rihanna and her blazer, and Celine Dion strutting the Parisian streets in a daily parade of increasingly wacky outfits—silk pajamas and head-to-toe crocodile skin and sequined pajamas. (“Celine Dion Continues Being Almost Aggressively Interesting in Paris,” fashion bloggers noted). The city clinched the 2024 Summer Olympics after years of campaigning. And then there was Paris Couture Week, which took strides to become less exclusive and more fun (and longer) this year. Its finale saw Chanel constructing a massive indoor Eiffel Tower around which their models stomped.

These flashy Paris moments broadcast to a global audience are not a coincidence. They are part of the city’s feverish efforts to boost tourism in the months and years after their string of terrorist attacks. It’s a multi-pronged approach to demonstrate to the travelers of the world that Paris is open for business—their business—and it involves rebuilding or reconstructing essential aspects of the tourist experience.

First it was the January 2015 terrorist attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical newspaper. November 2015 brought the coordinated siege of some of Paris’ most crowded areas, killing 130 people. In July 2016, an ISIS operative blew into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in the south of France. The violent armed robbery of international super star Kim Kardashian in October 2016 certainly didn’t help matters. If a celebrity with a bodyguard at the door can’t even sit alone in her own hotel room, how safe can any other tourist really feel?

Parisian’s react to the 2015 terrorist attacks with bouquets of flowers near the Bataclan.
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Parisian’s react to the 2015 terrorist attacks with bouquets of flowers near the Bataclan. Getty
Military trucks circle the Champs Elysées after the 2015 terrorist attacks./
Getty
Military trucks circle the Champs Elysées after the 2015 terrorist attacks./ Getty

By fall 2016, tourism authorities estimated an 11 percent drop in visitors for the year, or around $1 billion in lost revenue. The starkest drop came from the Asian markets: 21.5 percent fewer Chinese travelers came in 2016, and a whopping 41 percent fewer Japanese.

“The impact of the Paris attentât was felt straight away,” says Stephane Planchais, the co-founder of Original Food Tours in Paris, over email. “Now the tourism is starting to come back gently for the benefit of everyone here in France and Paris, but people are still very much nervous and a bit anxious.”

“By fall 2016, tourism authorities estimated an 11 percent drop in visitors for the year, or around $1 billion in lost revenue. “

“There was definitely a drop in visitors in 2015, but by the end of 2016, I had a lot of returning guests who decided to return, in support of Paris,” says Gail Boisclair of apartment-rental company, Perfectly Paris. “It was a difficult period, though, when first-time visitors would not choose Paris as their destination.”

While the French economy is hardly collapsing from the lack of tourism, the 11 percent drop was more than enough to spook the government and tourism authorities into action. In 2017, the city hired an American press agency, Quinn PR, to boost its international profile and share news of “culinary experiences” and “immersive cultural excursions.” And in November 2016, Mayor Anne Hidalgo and her deputy, Jean-François Martins, unveiled a robust plan containing 59 items to be spread out over the next five years.

And the Eiffel Tower is getting a makeover. On June 20, the city and the Society of Exploitation of the Eiffel Tower (SETE) elaborated on the mayor’s previous mention of cleaning of the base of the monument. “The reception of visitors is the priority of this new project with the objective of optimizing flows [and] reducing waiting times,” the groups said in a statement. “The ticketing system will be completely redesigned to allow the online sale of timestamped tickets.” The updates will roll out from 2017 until the 2024 Olympics.

Wide-reaching though it may be, the mayor’s plan represents just that—governmental efforts to revive the industry. Individual museums and historical sites have already begun their own improvements. The 19th-century National Library of France just reopened after the first stage of a spectacular renovation, as did the famed Hotel de Crillon. The central Gare du Nord train station is getting a structural renovation, along with a new restaurant from a Michelin-starred chef. The roundabout at the Champs- Élysées is adding six new fountains. Disneyland Paris opened a new park, the eco-themed Villages Nature Paris, in August. And to lure those Japanese and wine-guzzling tourists alike, France introduced new high-speed trains in July, connecting 230 cities and towns in the country. The biggest draw is the line between Paris and Bordeaux, a ride that now takes a mere two hours. It used to be three and a half.

Paris doesn’t lack for attractions, but it’s gaining even more./
Instagram
Paris doesn’t lack for attractions, but it’s gaining even more./ Instagram
The famed Hotel de Crillon re-opened earlier this year after a spectacular renovation./
Getty
The famed Hotel de Crillon re-opened earlier this year after a spectacular renovation./ Getty

Then there is all the sparkling new. Paris doesn’t lack for attractions, but it’s gaining even more. The Museum Yves Saint Laurent, a space dedicated to the late designer’s work, will open this October in his historic atelier. The new venue Théâtre du 13e will offer two auditoriums. A new Louis Vuitton flagship boutique opens near Place Vendôme in the fall. The city just handed out its first license for a discotheque that will stay open 24 hours a day, a techno club called Concrete.

An Eataly is taking over the Marais in 2018. It is planned at 43,000 square feet.

If the political situation in France still seemed too fraught when foreign tourists were planning their vacations for 2017, international hope was renewed again with the election this May of Macron. In his first few months, Macron has shown himself to have an Obama- or Justin Trudeau-esque skill for using cheeky internet-speak to gain admirers and influence. His response to President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accords was to tweet out a speech—in English—denouncing the decision, along with a meme: “Make Our Planet Great Again.”

The list of attractions is truly overwhelming, and the folks at tourism authority Atout France have even more to share when given the opportunity. “There is a steady stream up ahead of new hotels and cultural venues to look forward to and revamped neighborhoods to discover—like Bercy, the Canal Saint-Martin area, and other districts not previously known as hot spots,” says Marion Fourestier, a 20-year veteran of Atout France. “The Euro-dollar exchange rate is almost at parity, and airline ticket prices have declined due to the drop in fuel charges and the increase of U.S. to France flights due to low cost carriers like Norwegian, XL Airways, and others.”

If anything demonstrates the city’s return to normal, it’s the slight snobbishness with which Parisians discuss this dip in the tourism industry. “Paris and France have experienced some difficult moments in the last two years, but the situation has not been as bad or dire as was sometimes reported,” Fourestier continues. When asked why tourists should come to Paris now, she says: “Because Paris is Paris: fun, exciting, and fashionable.”

And Paris has got Rihanna in a blazer so large it covers her hands. Vive la ville!

Sunyoung Hong
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