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Notre Dame Cathedral: What you need to know if you're planning to visit Paris

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4/16/2019 David Oliver
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The Notre Dame Cathedral fire is finally out − but the impact on tourism to the church, and Paris itself, remains to be seen.

The cathedral's iconic twin bell towers were visibly intact on Tuesday. The 18th century organ that boasts 8,000 pipes also appeared to have survived, along with other treasures inside the structure, officials said. Still, the blaze collapsed the cathedral’s spire and spread to one of its rectangular towers in a spectacle watched by throngs of spectators Monday.

So what happens now, and what do travelers need to know? While we're in a period of wait-and-see, tourists can pay their respects to the cathedral nearby, seek refunds from tour companies on pending trips and still see what else Paris has to offer. 

Notre Dame most-visited monument in Europe

Notre Dame carries the title of most-visited monument in the country and Europe, with more than 12 million visitors every year, according to the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau. The city's cultural attractions in total saw 70.2 million visitors in 2017, up 5.9% from 2016.

Hotel data for the greater Paris area from January to October 2018 indicates that 2018 was a record year for tourist stays. There was a 16.6 percent increase of U.S. tourist stays during that period. The PCVB announced plans to work with London on a joint marketing campaign aimed at millennial American tourists, acting quickly in respond to trends: Paris recently saw a drop in airline bookings for February to April 2019.

After Notre Dame fire, what now?

But the Notre Dame fire has led to an unprecedented conundrum: The cathedral has never been closed for an extended period of time, Claire Moreau of the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau told USA TODAY. It's also not immediately clear how long it will be shut down.

"To our knowledge it has never been closed for a long period," Moreau added. "In 2013, when they put the bells up but it was not even closed. They did that during the night. Only the towers were closed."

To call the cathedral an iconic, must-seen destination is an understatement. Think about Victor Hugo's novel "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" and the Disney film adaptation. Important relics in the cathedral include the Crown of Thorns, thought to be placed on Jesus' head before his crucifixion; a fragment of the True Cross, believed to be part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified; and one of the Holy Nails, believed to be used in the crucifixion. 

The cathedral is also No. 1 on the U.S. News & World Report ranking of best things to do in Paris.

What are the restrictions around the cathedral?

While tourists can't go inside the site itself, the area may still prove popular to those looking to pay their respects. Parisians and visitors are welcome to write messages of support in both the main and local city halls.

All bridges surrounding the cathedral are blocked by police – but that hasn’t deterred tourists and Parisians from clustering as close as they can to the fire-scarred monument.

Sidewalks on the both sides of the Seine River were packed with curious spectators, both tourists and French bemoaning the disaster. Notre Dame sits on an island in the middle, the Ile de la Cite.

Even with all this, Paris' tourism campaign with London isn't expected to change. "We are currently working on our communication plan following the disaster, but it shouldn’t impact our campaign with London," Moreau said.

The Paris Tourist Office has posted updates on Twitter since the fire to assist tourists.

"Following last night's fire at # Our Lady of # Paris , Paris Tourist Office remains available to assist visitors and media," one post read. "Our welcoming centers and hotline service ( +33 1 49 52 42 63) will be open for 10am today for any help, question or assistance."

 

Tour companies refund cathedral tours, offer alternatives

The visitors bureau staff knows spring is a busy time for tourists in Paris. The agency recommends people visit other sites, "whether they be religious monuments like the Basilique Saint-Denis, the Sacré-Coeur and the Church of Saint-Eustache or cultural sites nearby like the Sainte-Chapelle or the Panthéon," according to a statement. Those looking to observe religious services during Holy Week are advised to go to Saint-Eustache. 

Visits inside Notre Dame itself right now are impossible, and several tour companies are taking the preemptive step to refund bookings.

People should not be discouraged from visiting Paris in the coming weeks or months, says GetYourGuide spokesperson Will Gluckin. GetYourGuide is a Berlin-based tourism company.

a castle with water in front of a building: Notre Dame Cathedral is seen on April 16, 2019. © Provided by USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc. Notre Dame Cathedral is seen on April 16, 2019.

"As the building itself is severely damaged, GetYourGuide has canceled and refunded all bookings for tours that bring visitors inside the structure through the end of June," Gluckin told USA TODAY. "Access to the surrounding area on Ile de la Cité is also currently restricted, but our best information suggests that it will soon be possible to safely visit the structure up close on walking tours."

Fat Tire Tours additionally "will be refunding all guests that have purchased a tour that includes entrance into the cathedral or towers," Crissa Youngblood, its director of marketing, told USA TODAY. The company is in the process of coming up with a plan to give guests the option to donate to the rebuilding process.

Looking ahead to rebuilding

It seems the rebuilding process can begin, given the Paris Fire Service announced on Twitter that firefighters "came to grips with" the blaze at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, more than 12 hours after nearly 400 firefighters had battled the flames that altered the city's skyline. Two policemen and one firefighter had been slightly injured, according to the fire service.

A massive fundraising campaign was underway Tuesday to rebuild the cathedral. At least $339 million has already been pledged. French billionaire Francois Henri Pinault pledged $113 million, while fellow billionaire Bernard Arnault and his LVMH group pledged $226 million.

"Expressions of emotion and comfort from all over the world have eased the pain of the sad images that have been circulating in recent hours," the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau added in a statement. "The people of France, together with Parisians and lovers of the French capital, will in the next few months and years have their heart set on rebuilding this landmark symbol."

This is also a reminder of how important it is to not put off your travel plans, says Darshika Jones, regional director for North America at Intrepid Travel: "You never know when things will change or when you’ll stop having access to visit the places you’ve dreamed about for so long."

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard, Rebecca Rosman, Ryan W. Miller, the Associated Press

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