Empty museums and restaurants in Bruges paint bleak picture of tourism in Europe

After an initial boost in tourism in July, visitor numbers are declining again for many of Europe's hot spots

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It was during a morning stroll past the Gothic city hall in Burg Square back in March that Bruges mayor Dirk De fauw first realised just how hard Europe's tourism industry had been hit by the pandemic.

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

“Nothing. Nobody is on that large square," which sits 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 per cent".

No country has been exempt in an area spanning from Greece's beaches to the trattorias in Rome and the museums of Paris.

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. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
Museums throughout Europe have been forced to close due to the coronavirus outbreak. AP Photo

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

The summer brought with it fresh surges in Covid-19 contamination, especially in Spain and France, new restrictive measures and regional colour 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 more than eight million in the city of 110,000.

“The swans have it all to themselves," said boat captain Michiel Michielsens. On a normal day – not like the one when he had 114 customers instead of 1,200 – tourists instead of birds would rule the city's famed canals. Now, a boat could be seen carrying a single couple around instead of its normal load of 40 people.

The fate of museums

For tourists who can live with wearing masks for hours, there are some advantages. In Bruges, it extends to the city's museums, where the medieval Flemish Primitives take centre 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 had to close for months earlier this year, and the outlook is bleak.

Attendance has now slumped to a quarter of what it was in 2019 at Bruges museums. There was brief respite in July when it saw about 50 per cent of its usual visitor numbers return.

"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 [Dh14.7m to 17.3m] this year," despite expectations being high in a Van Eyck memorial year with special exhibits, he said. "We thought we would have had huge numbers of visitors."

The situation 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 what revenue they manage to make. 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 recovery fund that the 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 canal-facing hotel-restaurant Duc de Bourgogne.

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. 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 in October will examine how to reinvigorate and reform tourism.

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

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. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoone at his Chocolate Line shop in Bruges, Belgium. AP Photo

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 going to 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.