x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

France to host a year of solemn reflection

The most popular destination on the planet is widely regarded for its culture, natural beauty and cuisine. But two major military anniversaries next year are set to boost tourism revenues significantly.

Visitors to the American cemetery overlooking Omaha beach at Colleville sur Mer. Thomas Bregardis / AFP
Visitors to the American cemetery overlooking Omaha beach at Colleville sur Mer. Thomas Bregardis / AFP

The magnetic power of beautiful coastlines, spectacularly varied landscape and architecture, rich history and acclaimed cuisine gives France its status as the world's most popular destination for tourists.

Most visitors - and last year there were about 76 million of them - count on bright blue skies, especially if they have planned summer holidays there.

But next year, the French tourism industry expects a significant contribution from a less obvious source: a silver lining concealed within the heavy clouds of war.

France now has 236 sites recalling the glory and courage, suffering and sacrifice of two world wars and two momentous commemorations take place in 2014.

July 28 will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, the conflict that grimly failed to live up to its billing as the war to end all wars.

Almost two months before that is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the landings in northern France's Normandy region on June 6, 1944 that signalled the beginning of the end of Nazi occupation of France in the Second World War and Hitler's eventual downfall.

Kader Arif, the minister for ex-combatants, and Sylvia Pinel, minister of craft, trade and tourism, are well aware of the economic benefits to the country these anniversaries will have, and of the need to ensure remembrance is the central issue.

"The state carries grand ambitions of facilitating, with appropriate dignity, visits to places of commemoration with the objective of promoting, in France and abroad, a form of tourism with meaning that is attracting more and more adherents,"they said in a foreword to a study by the French tourism and defence ministries for the national tourism agency, Atout France.

Donna Morris, an American living in Paris who runs a personalised service for compatriots and other English-speaking visitors, is one of those expecting to be kept busy next year.

Although more accustomed to helping her clients get around the capital, Ms Morris offers a range of options for people interested in war-related excursions.

Last week, she took a group of Americans by train to Pointe du Hoc, a clifftop location between the two beaches from which US army rangers attacked a stronghold of the Nazis' Atlantic Wall coastal fortifications. Two days of fighting left 135 of the original landing force of 225 rangers dead or wounded.

"We can visit the US cemetery and one of the beaches and be back in Paris by 8pm," she says.

The 70th anniversary of D-Day will draw surviving ex-combatants, families and a fascinated public, plus an impressive crop of VIPs, to an area including the five beaches codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword where, on a June Tuesday in 1944, 160,000 allied soldiers landed to begin the decisive phase of the liberation of France.

Operation Overlord, which began with the invasion and lasted for two months, cost the lives of more than 225,000 British and American servicemen and their allies. Thousands of French civilians also died in the campaign to free Normandy from German control.

The last surviving combat veteran from the First World War of 1914-18 died two years ago, at the age of 110. The ranks of servicemen who fought in the Second World War and are still alive become thinner each year. But the conflicts in which they risked their lives, while so many more perished, continue to be commemorated in the battlefields and mass cemeteries and at memorials and museums.

War remembrance accounts for a solid chunk of the tourism industry that is essential to the French economy, attracting six million visitors - 45 per cent of them from abroad - in an ordinary year without special anniversaries. Six per cent of national income is generated by the sector as a whole.

The Normandy département of Calvados, where the beaches are located and whose main city of Caen is home to a renowned Second World War memorial and museum, earned €124 million (Dh590m) between June and September 2011 and €202m for the year as a whole. The significance to the broader local economy can be seen from the low proportion - just 6 per cent - coming from direct expenditure at sites.

The striking symbolism of next year's events will inevitably bring people in much greater numbers. Tourism officials are already talking of a €50m boost to the economies of northern and western France in particular.

Visitors' motives range from simple curiosity, historical interest or respect, to a desire to retrace the steps, sometimes the last steps, of loved ones, or even to search for the mementoes of fighting that the battlefields continue to yield. Only those now in their 80s or older can have played an active part as military personnel in the 1939 to 1945 war.

The solemnity of the occasions to be marked next year rises above the business interests of hotels, travel companies, shops, restaurants and other enterprises that stand to benefit from the influx of visitors.

But in a country experiencing severe symptoms of recession, even the traditional strength of tourism is under assault.

A recent study indicated only 48 per cent of the French themselves plan to take full holidays in the peak season of this month and next.

The French travel consultancy Protourisme says the fall from 53 per cent last year reflects a slump in spending power and anxiety about the future. Of the 30.5 million who said they would take July or August holidays, 5.3 million envisaged breaks of less than four nights away from home - a period once considered unthinkable in a country where workers routinely took off an entire peak-season month. The average stay is now expected to be 11.5 days, with six in 10 having shorter holidays than last summer and those categorised as middle class faring worst in the crisis, having 7 per cent less to spend.

Accordingly, the tourism industry knows it must take full advantage of huge worldwide interest in the commemorations. In the case of the First World War, the July 28 starting date will be followed by stream of centenaries of major battles and developments up to the 100th anniversary of the armistice on November 11, 2018.

In Picardy, the northern French setting of the bloody Battle of the Somme in 1916, the normal annual visitor levels of 150,000-200,000 are expected to double next year.

Officials at Somme Tourism say the economic benefits, worth €23m in an average year, should top €30m annually during the period of commemoration between next year and 2018. If Normandy and the Somme are the French regions most commonly associated in public consciousness with the big events of the two wars, other parts of France - from Champagne and Nord-Pas-de-Calais south to the Var - are also actively preparing for greater interest from tourists.

In the words of Mr Arif and Ms Pinel writing in the Atout France study, the battles of yesteryear have given France a "heritage of a density and diversity unparalleled in the world".