The strikes are affecting tourism, but France is still profiting even if travelers are losing out

There was much hand-wringing on French television during the widely publicized one-day strikes over pension reform amid fears the protests would damage tourism and tarnish France’s image.

However, there is little evidence that the strikes are harming France’s economy as a whole. France will not lose its crown as the world’s most visited country – it is the world’s 7th largest economy and tourism accounts for 10% of GDP – and early figures show that long-haul business is booming in May and June.

Where the strikes in France are having an impact, however, is on individual travel plans – where figures so far for 2023 show 10 million passengers have already been affected by the unrest.

The number of visitors to France is up 33% for 2023

The figures show that pent-up demand since the end of the pandemic has not dampened demand for Paris getaways, despite pictures of rotting rubbish on the streets or the threat of air traffic controller strikes.

Digital marketing platform Sojern reports that US travelers are returning to Europe in large numbers, with US visitors to Paris up 33% compared to 2022 figures.

Trainline Europe has recently seen an increase in bookings to Paris – it is now the most popular destination for groups of three or more travelers and, along with London, is the number one destination for solo travellers. Likewise, TripIt reports that perennial favorites London, Paris and Rome are the top long-haul destinations for Americans traveling in June.

As a result, travel app Hopper reports that airfares to Europe are now at their highest in 5 years, with trips to Europe currently averaging $1,167 per ticket for summer departures, 36% more expensive than last year or so $317 more per ticket.

The price increase was caused by a mix of low capacity, higher jet fuel prices and rising demand – on Hopper, passengers head to London, Paris and Tokyo from the US

The majority of French tourism is not long-haul international

France is also protected by a large domestic tourist market. Only 30% of France’s tourism comes from long-haul international visitors – traditionally the French like to holiday in their own country, taking advantage of its own mountains, cities, lakes and beaches, and many head to these places for more most of August, when the country goes into national recess. Many unions consider this period sacred – they are not out to annoy hoteliers and restaurateurs or turn away angry holidaymakers who can’t get to their destinations.

There is some evidence to suggest that political unrest and action do lead to a decrease in bed occupancy nights, the metric by which tourism data is measured. During the yellow vest protests against social inequality before the pandemic in 2019, bed occupancy did decrease, but it is impossible to know whether these visitors actually canceled or simply rebooked for a later date.

INSEE (National Institute of Statistics of France) analyzed previous social protests and found that they had very little impact on economic growth. Plus, with many strike actions tied to the transport sector, INSEE predicts that the impact of this movement in 2023 will be further limited as the pandemic has trained everyone to work online – meaning people can easily adapt to temporary interruptions in their transport behaviors.

Also, while France is known as a country that likes to protest, the number of strike days today is lower than in the 1970s, and in the past few summers, water shortages, risks of fires and heat to offer tourists more incentive to head elsewhere.

30% of daily European flights affected by strikes in 2023

The real loser from the strikes are individual passengers, many of whom have suffered real delays since the strikes began in January.

European air traffic control body Eurocontrol has released figures for the period between March 1 and April 9, when a staggering 10 million passengers were affected by flight delays or cancellations, amounting to 64,000 passengers every day in France alone. Normally the planes are almost 80% accurate, but during strike days this drops to around 70%.

This is not only a problem for flights departing and landing in France, as many flights pass through French airspace. So every day up to 3,300 flights take off and land at French airports, but another 3,700 pass through French airspace – and 16% of these have been affected by air traffic controller strikes (although this figure rises if more cancellations are included flights more than 3 days before any planned strike).

Ryanair, Air France and Easyjet were the three most delayed and canceled airlines during this period. Ryanair, in particular, is petitioning the EU to protect connecting flights from the same refund and protection schemes as flights in France, as it argues that customers flying from the UK to Italy should not have to bear the brunt of the French strikes when they are not entered the state.

While France was the most affected by flights, Spain also experienced a 15% delay in departures and a 63% increase in canceled flights over the same time period. The UK, Italy and Germany experienced around 6 to 8% of delayed or canceled flights, mostly flyovers.

Across Europe, a total of 34 days of strike action in EU countries affected 237,000 flights – by comparison the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in April 2010 affected 100,000 flights.

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