The world's most visited museum, the Louvre in Paris, reopened Monday after nearly four months of coronavirus closure, with a restricted number of masked visitors enjoying a rare chance to view the "Mona Lisa" and other treasures without the usual throngs.
Several dozen visitors queued outside the vast former palace of France's kings, eagerly awaiting the opening at 9:00 am (0700 GMT) as the museum hopes to start recuperating losses estimated at more than 40 million euros ($45 million) due to the lockdown.
When the doors opened, spontaneous applause rang out.
"I am very, very happy to welcome visitors to a museum that exists first and foremost to welcome visitors," said museum director Jean-Luc Martinez.
"We have dedicated our lives to art, we like to share this passion, and here we are!"
The museum's most popular draws will be accessible, including Leonardo's "Mona Lisa," the Venus de Milo and the Louvre's vast antiquities collection.
But galleries in which social distancing is more difficult, about a third of the total, will remain off-limits, and visitor numbers were capped at 500 per half hour in a bid to lower coronavirus transmission risks.
Face masks are compulsory and no snacks or cloakrooms are available.
Tickets must be bought beforehand online, and were sold out for the long-awaited reopening after the Louvre's longest closure since World War II.
"Some 7,000 people have reserved tickets, normally we host about 30,000 people" per day, said Martinez, who expects tough months and years ahead.
The museum will not get any anywhere near the 9.6 million visitors it hosted last year -- down from a record 10 million in 2018. Nearly three-quarters of its visitors in a normal year are from abroad.
Selfish but lucky
For Nicole Lamy, a 21-year-old visiting from Brussels, the limit on ticket sales was "an "opportunity to see the 'Mona Lisa' up close and not in a crowd. It's a bit selfish but I think I'm lucky with my first visit to the Louvre."
Also in the queue was Bertrand Arzel from Maisons-Alfort, southeast of Paris, who said he and his friends also came in search of a more solitary museum experience.
"We thought it was the first day of the reopening, that there might be fewer people than usual, and we wanted to walk around the Louvre without anyone," he said.
But they also came in a show of solidarity.
"It is very important that cultural establishments can welcome the public because we need it, and they need the public, too, to survive. So we're here for that, too," Arzel said.
Measures were put in place to allow ticket holders to keep a safe distance from one another.
Marks on the ground indicated where visitors should stand -- including selfie shooters in front of the "Mona Lisa" -- and blue arrows showed the direction of one-way foot traffic, with no about-turns allowed.
Focus on France
With tourism still at a standstill, the Louvre will seek to attract more French visitors in the coming months.
"We are losing 80 percent of our public," Martinez said.
"We are going to be at best 20 to 30 percent down on last summer -- between 4,000 and 10,000 visitors a day," he estimated.
The French state contributes 100 million euros ($112 million) to the museum's annual budget of 250 million euros.
The Louvre has upped its virtual presence during the lockdown and says it is now the world's most popular museum on Instagram, with over four million followers.
"I have missed it enormously," said Julia Campbell, a French pensioner who was among the first to visit the reopened museum.
"I usually come twice per month," she said, adding she intends to enjoy Monday's relative quiet ambiance to "stay longer."
© Agence France-Presse