Wine and cheese. It doesn't get much more "France" than that, although the roller skating mime handing out toffees certainly added a certain je ne sais quoi at the Destination France 2022 trade event in Toronto on 18MAY. It was the third stop on a Canada-wide tour to promote the best of France, which also included pit stops in Quebec City, Montreal, and Vancouver.
Around 30 airline, hotel, destination, and attraction partners were on hand to mingle, wine, and dine with travel advisors. The suppliers gave agents an intimate look at everything France has to offer, from world-class shopping at the iconic Galeries Lafayette Paris Haussmann (the biggest department store in Europe) to river cruising with CroisiEurope (Europe's largest river cruise line). Air Canada, Air Transat, and Corsair advised on getting to France and tourism boards from the Caribbean's Martinique (an overseas territory of France) to Marseille on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea offered an exclusive peek into their destination.
"We wanted to show a presence in Canada to prove that we are ready to welcome Canadians again, that we can help travel agents find new products, and that we can help them cater to younger clients, who are the first ones to travel again," Mélanie Paul-Hus, director of Atout France's Canadian office.
"We have also regained most of our connectivity, and we want to support it and show our airline partners that we all come here to promote them."
"Book now!"—or risk missing out on your France vacation
After an "unsatisfying" year of Canadian travel to France in 2021, flights across the pond are perking up, especially now that pre-entry COVID-19 testing is no longer required for fully vaccinated travellers, said Paul-Hus. So much so that last-minute bookers run the risk of missing out on their bucket list France vacation this summer.
"For the summer, we really need this wake-up call of 'book now' because hotels in France are showing really good figures. If Canadians wait too long, they may have a problem with the availability in some areas," she told Open Jaw at the event.
The 2022 forecast for Canadians travelling to France is certainly more positive than the 50 per cent decrease experienced in 2021, but between an ongoing war in Ukraine, rising inflation, and skyrocketing fuel prices, the overall outlook is still comme ci, comme ça—optimistic, but marred by uncertainty.
"The response is good so far, but it's still unclear as to what people are actually thinking right now. We have data, but we won't really know how this year is looking until the summer ends," Paul-Hus noted.
Will Canadian travellers choose France?
With packed airports a clear sign that Canadians are taking to the skies again, "Will they choose France?" is a big question on Paul-Hus' mind. Lucky for France, it's anything but a hard sell.
"I think they will [choose France] because it's reassuring. It's good to go to a destination that you've been to before—maybe not exactly the same area, but at least you're familiar with the process and you know that if you run into a problem there, you will be able to handle it successfully," Paul-Hus said.
For Milka Cook, a travel consultant with Collacutt Travel, Canadians will keep returning to France for its fashion, food, and individuality.
"France has a lot of history and a diversity of many, many different events that we can enjoy, from sports to religion," she told Open Jaw.
Ravi Kumar, Chief Operating Officer at Huntington Travel Group, notes that France (along with Portugal and Spain) are among the top European destinations for Canadians. From a broader perspective, Kumar said his agency's bookings are currently at 60 per cent of the benchmark 2019 numbers and is hopeful to hit between 70 per cent to 80 per cent before the year is out.
"People are spending a lot of money. They haven't seen family in two years, they've gone through a pandemic and all that, and now they want to go out and enjoy luxury travel. People are willing to pay more to stay comfortable, so they're mostly booking private tours as well as private groups and families together," he noted.
Rudolph Nareen, Owner/President of Astor Travels, is noticing his clients are booking longer, more luxurious trips than pre-pandemic.
"People have a lot of disposable income, and they are spending. I also think people have a different conception of where the word is going, so they have a bigger tendency to 'live it up' now," he told Open Jaw.
One trend Paul-Hus highlighted is the strong comeback of river cruises in France.
"We have rivers that are actually like arteries in the lifestyle of France. We have the brand new Valley of Gastronomy, which goes around the Rhone River and is all about food, cuisine, and traditions. You have the Occitanie region, which is famous for religious pilgrimages and the Canal du Midi. We're in that bucket list stage, so all those classics in France are coming back in the minds of people," she said.
Besides cruising, there's no lack of activities, budget variations, and accommodation options to keep luring Canadian travellers, some of them brand new. Even Paul-Hus conceded that "the last two years were amazing, in a way. Because many projects were already confirmed—like some residential neighbourhood projects, museum exhibits, or brand new hotels—the crisis just sped them up. And now we're preparing for the 2024 Summer Olympics, so there will be even more to see and discover."