Canadian-born Eric Leboeuf would usually spend the anniversary of the D-Day beach landings guiding North American tourists in a vintage military jeep to the sites where allied forces invaded France to drive out Nazi Germany in World War Two.
For the second year running however, the COVID-19 crisis will be keeping away the tourists who drive the local economy along this 80-km (50-mile) stretch of the northern French coast.
For many in the industry, it is the big-spending North American tourists who offer the biggest prize.
Leboeuf’s company, the Gold Beach Company, has depended on government aid for its survival after tough COVID-19 border restrictions wiped out 80% of its business. Only he and the two founders remain on the payroll, down from 10 in early 2020.
“I can’t wait to get my first Americans back on tour,” Leboeuf told Reuters at the wheel of a restored U.S. army Willys Jeep.
“Taking these small streets through the Normandy countryside, it reminds them of those movies or documentaries that they’ve watched over the years. To them it’s like a dream to do this in a vehicle from 1943.”
From the D-Day tour companies in the north to campsites in the Dordogne, businesses in the battered tourism industry are in a race against time to secure bookings for a second summer as new coronavirus variants cloud the outlook.
Before the crisis, nearly 90 million foreigners visited France annually, with large numbers touring the beaches where some 150,000 soldiers from Britain, the United States, Canada and elsewhere waded ashore or parachute dropped behind coastal defences on June 6, 1944, to liberate western Europe.
Visitor numbers slumped when France imposed COVID-19 border controls. The government plans to open borders to foreign tourists on June 9 but will use a “traffic light” system that imposes tougher curbs on visitors from countries where the virus is more prevalent.
Hotels along the Normandy coast said they did not expect a sudden influx of guests from North America.
“They don’t like organising trips at the last minute,” said Rima Hebert, whose luxury 32-bedroom hotel built in the shadow of Bayeux’s cathedral has been closed since March 2020.
Hebert said 95% of her guests were American or Canadian. She planned to open two rooms later this month but was not seeing a pick-up in reservations until September and October – bookings that were made last year. Even so, the risk of new contagious variants made her cautious about the months ahead.
“It’s easy to cancel a reservation,” she said.
Footfall has dropped sharply at the U.S. cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, where 2,500 American troops were killed by German gunners and artillery on the first day of the allied offensive, said the memorial’s superintendent.
Sylvain Kast, a freelance tour guide, would expect to have full-time work over the summer. Instead, he has only three bookings between June and October.
He said that despite generous state financial support he had worked nightshifts as a welder and as a standby history teacher to help make ends meet during the crisis.
“You do this job for the love of it,” Kast said. “It’s been tough psychologically.”