Europeans emerging from lockdowns find a conspicuous absence of Americans

Spooked by coronavirus concerns, tourists were scarce at the usually packed Trevi Fountain in Rome on Saturday, March 7, 2020. Now that things are opening up again, a lack of American tourists is evident.


By CHICO HARLAN, JAMES MCAULEY AND STEFANO PITRELLI | The Washington Post | Published: May 29, 2020

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ROME — Dario Bartoli, a tour guide who works mostly with Americans, was leading his latest group outing one recent evening, walking along a pedestrian bridge lined with angel statues, on the way to St. Peter's Square. Only this time, Bartoli was by himself. He held a selfie stick. His phone's video was rolling as he walked. A half-dozen Americans joined by Zoom.

"Welcome to Rome," Bartoli, a guide for LivItaly Tours, said looking into his phone. "A different Rome."

The path from the United States to Europe has been among the world's busiest cross-continental travel routes, with Americans arriving every summer and transforming capitals from Paris to Rome, waiting in lines at the museums and ruins, filling up heralded restaurants, and pumping money into local economies.

But this year, all that is conspicuously absent. The coronavirus and accompanying travel restrictions have forced a distance between Europe and the United States unseen since the dawn of commercial air travel.

The change goes beyond the flow of tourists. American business travelers are down to a trickle, forced to take convoluted journeys on the handful of remaining flights.

Of course, Europe is not entirely without Americans. There are still many expats based here. But their experience has changed, as well. They have found themselves suddenly cut off from friends and family in the States — and sometimes the only English speakers in places where American accents are usually hard to avoid.

As European countries gradually emerge from their lockdowns, people here are finding cities that feel and sound as they haven't in decades. Older Romans say the city has a 1950s vibe, from a period when tourist arrivals to the continent were 50 times lower. Romans are flocking to the city's gorgeous sites, reclaiming them from the tourist groups they normally try to steer away from.

In Piazza Navona on a recent weekend, Italian children rode tricycles around a Bernini sculpture, Roman families lined up for gelato, older locals sat on benches with their shopping bags. The tourist-dependent restaurants, selling overpriced pastas, were shuttered. The vendors hawking trinkets were gone.

"For Romans, it's a rediscovery of their places," said Paolo Caggia, 66, a retiree. But he also called tourism an important business. "You can't just shrug, do nothing, and let it stay this way forever."

Within the European Union, the largest chunk of tourism comes from Europeans visiting other countries in the bloc. But Americans — who come for tourism far more than for business — account for the largest portion after that, according to United Nations and European Commission data. Americans spend three times more nights at European hotels than do guests from China. And because they've been visiting certain areas for decades — Venice, Paris, the Amalfi Coast — entire industries have built up around offering Americans the kind of travel they want.

"Don't ask me if I miss the Americans. I'd go pick them up on a boat if I could," said Claudio Gargioli, the owner of Armando al Pantheon, a well-known Roman restaurant where tourists book tables weeks in advance. Gargioli said that 50 percent of his customers were typically American.

"Please have them come back," he said. "Otherwise we might not be here much longer."

European countries are hoping to restart a modicum tourism in June, working first to open up corridors within the European Union. Some countries, including Greece, have signaled they will open up to non-E.U. travelers as well — but only from select countries, and not yet the United States, which is dealing with the world's largest coronavirus outbreak.

Even if countries do open to Americans later this summer, as Portugal and a few others have indicated they might, a drastically smaller number of people will come, given the time needed to plan international travel and the enduring health concerns. Airlines will have to relaunch routes as well; at the moment, for instance, there are no direct flights connecting Rome and the United States.

"They want to come, but we're not booking until we have a clearer idea of the situation," said Pablo Muñoz, owner of Bike Spain Tours, who said 80 percent of luxury cycling business comes from the United States.

Places in Europe that hold deep importance for Americans, like the military cemetery at Normandy in northern France, are having to rethink how they can help people feel connected to loved ones who are buried there, said Alison Bettencourt, Director of Public Affairs at the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Last year, for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, the cemetery saw 1.7 million visitors. This year, the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees military cemeteries, instead hosted two virtual Memorial Day ceremonies.

"We've been looking very heavily in social media, and our online presence," Bettencourt said.

American tourists are generally well-regarded in most places across Europe — seen as personable, good tippers. But Diego Chiaranda, a gondolier in Venice, said Americans might wind up paying a price for their country's disastrous response to the pandemic.

"Americans, according to the news, are in bad shape, with their high level of transmission," he said, noting that the economy was suffering there as well. "That is a bit our fear. Will they be able to afford to come?"

For Americans living in Europe, the realities of being abroad have also changed.

Peter Flaccus, an American artist who has lived in Rome since 1993, said his son, daughter-in-law, and their four children had been planning to spend much of the summer in Italy. Instead, Flaccus will be alone with his wife.

"It's tough," Flaccus said.

In Paris, Sylvia Whitman, a dual American-British citizen who owns the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore, said enduring the lockdown in the French capital had deepened her connection to her adopted home.

"It's made me feel more Parisian, more French," said Whitman, whose store revenue is at 20 percent of the usual level. "There are some people who left the city, and I felt like I went through this with the city. It's a real bond."

Going back to the time of the writers that her bookstore famous — it was a hub for the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Miller in the 1920s and 1930s — Paris has been an inspiration, refuge and magnet for expatriates.

But being an expat in recent decades hasn't involved the same sense of distance or required the same permanence that it once did. Americans have shifted back and forth across the Atlantic as their careers and families demanded.

Now, the pandemic has halted that sort of flexibility.

American writer Thomas Chatterton Williams said it has left him feeling estranged from American society.

"I've been in Paris for almost 10 years now, but had always been pretty ambivalent about being rooted there, despite having a French wife and two French kids," Williams said, whose most recent book, "Self-Portrait in Black and White," explores racial identity. "To borrow James Baldwin's phrase that I love, I thought of myself as a 'transatlantic commuter.'"

But being in France during the pandemic has changed his perspective on America, and his understanding of his place in each country, he said.

"The whole way this has all gone down, and especially the way the U.S. has handled it on the federal level, and the spectacle you see looking at America from Europe — it can be so mean-spirited," he said. "There's a lack of a collective 'we,' no sense of 'let's get through this together.'"

"That's made me rethink what quality of life really is, where I want to be, and where I want my family to be."

McAuley reported from Paris. The Washington Post's Pamela Rolfe in Madrid contributed to this report.