Rx for French tourism: Passion!

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Lefebvre.jpgBORDEAUX--The French Minister of Tourism, Frédéric Lefebvre, is one of those brilliant technocrats who rise to the top of the national educational system by sheer intellectual firepower, then rotate through positions of increasing responsibility (at least as long as their political party is in the majority). Lefebvre, for his part, has dutifully supported Nicholas Sarkozy over the years, but has also (gasp!) worked in the private sector, notably as a consultant to the hotel-casino developer Lucien Barrière. When he rejoined the government, taking over the tourism and small-business portfolio from Hervé Novelli in November, it was assumed he would shake things up at the staid, self-satisfied French tourism development agency with the totally inappropriate name of Atout France. (Sure, the word "atout" means "strong suit" in French, but isn't a tout, in English, the guy who gives you advice that's questionable at best?)

At a press conference this morning, Lefebvre threw out some prescriptions for the future of the French tourism industry. The 75 million people who visit France every year (fewer than 5 percent from the USA, by the way) constitute one of the country's leading generators of foreign currency, but tourism in France, which benefits a broad base of small businesses, lacks political clout compared to, say, the manufacture of fighter planes. So a relatively backwater agency like Atout France (formerly known as Maison de la France) doesn't get a lot of attention. Except this week.

Once a year, Atout France brings together 750 or so tour operators from around the world and turns them loose on 650 exhibitors from all parts of the country, everyone from major hotel groups to individual roadside attractions. The real benefit for the visiting tour operators is in the site visits that precede the trade show, when the tourism authorities in the French regions organize tours for the tour operators to show off the latest bells and whistles. What struck me, on a tour of wine estates around Bordeaux, is how much more savvy the chateau owners have become, even in the last couple of years. No longer are tourists disdained as boors and cheapskates; they're recognized as valuable contributors to the local economy. This might seem elementary, but many French wine growers have traditionally been concervative and suspicious of outsiders.

So the first thing Lefebvre said, at the official inauguration of this year's Rendez-Vous France here in Bordeaux, was that he'd instructed Atout France to update its clunky, antiquated website, franceguide.com. This isn't a political issue, he said; French of all political persuasions need to cooperate and promote France as a destination together. France, after all, is a brand, and a valuable one.

The second thing will clearly take a bit more time. France currently promotes itself as a destination of landscapes, of architectural and cultural history. That's okay for what Lefebvre calls "tourisme passage"--drive-by tourism. But he wants to shift to "tourisme de séjour"--settle in and stay a while. (Longer stays = more revenue, n'est-ce pas?)

To make France an attrractive destination for longer stays, it needs to do a better job of promoting what Lefebvre called its "living patrimony," such as its artistic and culinary culture, its "art de vivre," if you will. UNESCO last year inscribed the concept of the French gastronomic meal on the "intangible" list of World Heritage customs (one of nearly 200 unique practices, which also include the Mediterranean diet, Aubusson tapestries, and the art of building wooden bridges in China). Point being, said the technocrat, that France needs to put greater emphasis on French passion.

And who's in second place in the tourism sweepstakes? Ah, that would be that well-known hotbed of passion: Spain. Says Lefebvre: "They're dong it right."

Bordeaux Fete le Vin.JPG

Above: "Bordeaux Celebrates Wine," a sound & light show projected on the neoclassical façade of the stock exchange at the opening ceremonies of Rendez-Vous France, where I'm the guest of sponsors Atout France and Air France.

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This page contains a single entry by Cornichon published on March 29, 2011 10:00 AM.

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