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A tourist rests on a bench in front of the Louvre. AFP
A tourist rests on a bench in front of the Louvre. AFP

France readies its summer magic

France, the world's most visited country, believes it is in for a golden summer of tourism, Colin Randall writes.

On the radio, there is excited chatter about tailbacks totalling 350km on the Autoroute du Soleil and other routes south and west. As Atlantic and Mediterranean beaches fill up, the chic Riviera resort of Saint Tropez prepares to cope with a population rising from 5,000 to 100,000.

The holiday season in the world's most visited country, on UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) calculations, has begun.

And that country, France, believes it is in for a golden summer of tourism. Optimism has surfaced despite resilient patches of gloom on the economic front; the expected benefits will come, in part, at the expense of Tunisia and Egypt, where the Arab Spring has taken a toll.

The shutdown of businesses and sharp reduction of public administration may give the impression that France grinds to a halt for much of July and especially August. But the holiday sectoris working overtime.

One statistic already being touted makes a striking point: the region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur - a geographical combination bursting with holiday connotations - expects the influx to swell to 2.5 million, almost the population of Oman or Jamaica, on one day at the height of the season, August 15.

UNWTO figures put France on top in international arrivals, with almost 79 million last year, followed by the US with 61 million and, edging ahead of Spain, China on 56 million.

The country is fortunate in having so many areas its own inhabitants, and armies of foreign tourists, consider worth seeing.

Paris, the world's most visited city, may bid farewell to a large proportion of its own population each August, but foreigners arrive in huge numbers to compensate. From the Alps and Alsace to the borders with Italy and Spain, it is hard to think of many areas of the country without some appeal.

And it all represents big business. Six per cent of France's national income comes from tourism, and two thirds of that is generated by the French themselves as they explore their own richly varied land. Last year, tourism was worth 35.4 billion (Dh186.27bn) to the country.

A Radio France Internationale (RFI) report suggests the domestic aspect will grow even stronger this year, with the number of foreigners also increasing, augmented by visitors from emergent nations.

These bright prospects fly in the face of broad recognition that economic crisis is tough to overcome.

But plenty of people still have money to spend. It costs a packet to move around France: the 11-hour drive from the Channel Tunnel in the north to Saint Tropez in the south costs 150 (Dh790) in petrol and more than half that in road tolls. But RFI says that with the exception of mountain areas, the Alps and the Hautes-Pyrenees, all regions stand to experience an increase of 5 per cent or more in tourist numbers compared with last summer.

Images of instability in Egypt and Tunisia, highly popular destinations among French travellers in recent years, help to explain the trend. Protourisme, a firm of travel analysts, has reported that 1.3 million French people who might otherwise have gone abroad will stay in the country this summer.

In addition, a decrease in the number of foreigners visiting France in the earlier phases of the economic crisis was quickly reversed and the improvement is expected to continue.

RFI cited new interest from India, where the visitor figure for last year was already up 76 per cent year on year, Russia (up 64 per cent), China (23 per cent) and Brazil (20 per cent).

There are stings in the tail of this positive economic news.

Spain, one of the European nations most touched by the downturn, may prosper even more from European gains driven by potential holidaymakers put off by events in Tunisia or Egypt. Gilbert Marche, who owns a property agency in the resort of Saint Raphael, between Saint Tropez and Cannes, believes many people no longer feel able to afford holidays on the Riviera.

"If some are forgoing holidays in the Maghreb, they're turning more commonly to Spain where 'full up' signs are already being posted," he told the Nice-based Var-Matin newspaper.

His concern that Cote d'Azur prices are a deterrent is borne out by anecdotal evidence of empty tables galore at seafront restaurants coupled with severely restricted spending on drinks and ice creams in cafes, including those offering entertainment.

Mr Marche says even less fashionable areas to the west threaten the Riviera: "Languedoc-Roussillon is as sunny but a good deal cheaper."

Tourism officials have long acknowledged that France, and especially coastal France, has to extend its season.

The cafes drawing crowds for soirees of music or variety shows in July and August are typically quiet and entertainment-free in June and September, however good the weather.

Yet the generous retirement packages enjoyed by France's baby boomers, perhaps the last generation of favoured pensioners as the Nicolas Sarkozy reforms begin to bite, means significant numbers of people seem able to take one holiday after another for much of the year.

It is a common theory that while people remain determined to take their holidays, they spend less once there.

Come September, the returning tourists will create a new wave of alerts for traffic jams. And the industry may be looking back on a season in which campsites and top-class hotels have done remarkably well, but restaurants are feeling they should have done better.


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