Étretat, Porquerolles, Mont-Saint-Michel... how the fight against overtourism is organized

Étretat, Porquerolles, Mont-Saint-Michel… how the fight against overtourism is organized

The wheelhouse thermostat read 31°C. The sea is rough, the weather summery. That Tuesday, around forty holidaymakers crowded into the maritime shuttle linking Hyères, in the Var, to the paradise island of Porquerolles. Presented as a haven of peace, the protected site is appreciated by tourists, who must leave their car on the mainland before starting their visit. On board the boat, a few couples, anticipating possible crowds at the foot of the creeks, unfold their map in order to organize their visit by bypassing the most congested passages. On arrival, however, surprise: there are tables left on the terrace, the bike rental companies have plenty of time to share their safety instructions and, on the emblematic beach of Notre-Dame, you can swim without crowding. Far from the record attendance of 2020, where the island had seen its attendance soar. Charlotte remembers: “A hell. The restaurants were crowded, the shops overloaded”, says this saleswoman from a furniture and clothing store, who grew up on the island. “There were bikes everywhere. I didn’t go to the beach anymore.” “Today, everyone can take full advantage,” rejoices Marie Théry, manager of a cycle rental brand, a hundred meters below.

Where does this little miracle come from? Back in the summer of 2021. After four years of consultations led by the Port-Cros and Porquerolles National Park, all the public and private players in the town agree to limit the number of tourists to 6,000 travelers per day. . A counting system is set up as soon as you arrive at the port to counter the rise in tourist influx, which has been exponential for the past twenty years, especially during the summer period.

“The breaking point appeared in the summer of 2020,” says Marc Duncombe, director of the national park. “One evening in July, the boom in attendance ended up causing a water break. At 7 p.m., in restaurants or rentals, no one could draw on the tap. The public authorities realized the extent of the question at that time.”

A virtuous reorganization

To guarantee the tonnage, eight shipping companies from Porquerolles have decided to coordinate their reservation system. “When people see that the crossing is full, they postpone their trip to the next day, notes Yves Arnal, president and founder of the Vedettes des bateliers de la Côte d’Azur and spokesperson for his colleagues. Previously we worked mainly on Wednesdays and Thursdays. From now on, everyone wins because our turnover is spreading.”

Difficult traffic, hotel tension, soaring rental prices… the problem of peaks in attendance extends well beyond the pretty town of Var. Between 1995 and 2019, France went from 60 million tourists to 217 million (1). On Ascension, Mont-Saint-Michel welcomed nearly 36,000 visitors, a figure not reached since the 1980s. On June 18, the day after the huge crowds observed during the bridge weekends in May and June , the government unveiled a series of measures: launching a campaign in 2024 to encourage all tourists to “adapt their choice of destination and schedule”; support for fifteen to thirty pilot territories; creation of thematic working groups by the end of the year… At the Assembly, the subject has already given rise to a text in 2021, authorizing mayors to regulate visits to a heritage or natural site. “You can always see the most beautiful waterfall in your region, but you don’t necessarily have to go under it”, sums up Marc Duncombe, who largely participated in the drafting of the legislation. It is on this article L360-1 that the mayor of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Robert Siegel, one of the first elected officials to seize it, legislated by prohibiting access to the Éventail waterfall , jewel of its small town in Hérault. “We drew up minutes last summer, and we could use private security companies in the coming months,” warns the city councilor.

Growing tensions

If the term “overtourism” appeared fairly recently, when did the phenomenon start? Hard to say. “Overcrowded sites like Mont-Saint-Michel have always existed, observes sociologist Bertrand Réau, lecturer at the Sorbonne. What changes, depending on the times and geographical areas, is the discomfort felt by some people. when they visit or live in a hyperfrequented place. Overtourism remains above all a question of perception.” In fact, since the mid-2010s, a feeling of fed up has been rising in France, as everywhere in Europe. (read our box at the end of the article). Because overcrowding has its share of unpleasant consequences. Conflicts and incivility sometimes arise between citizens and tourists, as in Saint-Pierre-Quiberon, on the Morbihan coast. During the last Easter weekend, locals even vandalized several vacationers’ cars. Tourism professionals from all branches say they are exhausted by the pressures enamelling these flood days.

Overtourism also weighs, very logically, on the environment. “In the Port-Cros and Porquerolles national park, our studies have shown that trampling causes nature to retreat by three centimeters each year. We had to mark out our paths”, notes Marc Duncombe. In Étretat, in Seine-Maritime, environmental defense associations are concerned about the collapse of the cliffs. Three landslides have taken place in one year. The chalk threatens to come off in several other places. If the erosion of the coastline and global warming contribute in large part to these collapses, the reception of the public obviously does not help.

The arrival of Airbnb, the generalization of online reservations and the famous “return to local” have largely contributed to this saturation effect. Among holidaymakers from working-class backgrounds, it is moreover less “a return than a practice rooted in the history of paid leave, which is the history of holidays in France”, analyzes the anthropologist of the travel Saskia Cousin. Economic reasons also explain the success of high tourist sites such as Porquerolles or Mont-Saint-Michel. Constrained by inflation, two out of three French people plan to confine their holidays to France, according to a survey by OpinionWay. “In times of crisis, the French leave for less time, spend less, but go on leave almost as much,” recalls the sociologist.

The TV and social media effect

In recent years, the astonishing impact of television series and social networks – especially Instagram – has been added to the picture. Since the international success of the French series Lupine, in 2021, with Omar Sy in the title role, the town of Étretat – 1,400 inhabitants – is overwhelmed by tourists. Getting your selfie in front of the Aval cliff is sometimes as essential as treading the Normandy beach. What Jean-François Rial, president and CEO of the Voyageurs du monde agency calls “an Instagramization of travel, with surges in popularity that are difficult to control”. Robert Siegel sees what the tour operator means. Until then the preserve of seasoned hikers, the Éventail waterfall has been taken over by thousands of Instagrammers in just one year. “No place is safe anymore, sighs the mayor of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert… And for biodiversity, when social networks get involved, it’s deadly.”

However, other municipalities reveal a certain ambiguity on the subject. Many claim to act against these massive flows, but continue at the same time to finance advertisements promoting their locality. The Etretat tourist office, for example, occasionally uses “travel influencers”. The game is not easy for the elected officials, who must maintain a delicate balance: preserving the tourist windfall which provides a surplus of revenue each year, while ensuring the tranquility of the surroundings. Robert Siegel does not forget that in his municipality of 250 souls, tourism guarantees 160 jobs for eight months of the year. “Our 500-space car park alone brings us the equivalent of the budget of a municipality of 1,500 inhabitants, he underlines. Money that is very useful for maintaining heritage.”

The solution to overtourism comes first and foremost through a better distribution of flows. In time. – reviewing the school holiday calendar is a track – and in space. 80% of tourists in France would visit less than 20% of the territory (2). Twelve years ago, the mixed syndicate Canigo Grand Site, in the Pyrénées-Orientales, launched the ambitious challenge of distributing its tourists over its entire area and no longer over three or four sites. It was necessary to rethink the entire management of flows: a network of 750 kilometers of hiking routes was marked out, picnic areas installed and car parks were moved away from creeks. The initiative, which brings together 79 municipalities, the department and the region, has made it possible to divide the peak attendance by ten. Traders share the revenue and visitors get more out of their stay. “We gained in peace for the hikes, and if the route was lengthened, I think that we damage nature less”, underlines Salomé, a regular on the surrounding trails.

But to be well received, these initiatives assume that visitors have changed their conception of tourism and their way of travelling. “You have to agree to spend more time to access the sites and be tempted, too, by unknown places”, adds the tour operator Jean-François Rial. Lagoons, peasant lands and mountainous relief… Everywhere in France, there is still so much to discover. Without stepping on your toes.

(1) and (2) Source: Ministry of SMEs, Trade, Crafts and Tourism.

And overtourism abroad?

Protests from exasperated residents in Majorca or conflicts in Barcelona: the inhabitants of the major European tourist cities are showing themselves to be less and less inclined to put up with the commotion caused by holidaymakers. Some cities are now waging war on overtourism. In Venice, a symbol of overcrowding, the authorities have made day reservations compulsory to visit the city of the Doges. In other paradisiac places of the globe, on the other hand, the question does not appear at all on the agenda. In Southeast Asia, Thailand, whose finances have been damaged by the sudden cessation of tourism during the Covid, sees the massive arrival of tourists as a blessing. Elsewhere, such as Bali (Indonesia), the Maldives, or Cancun (Mexico), the massive influx of summer visitors is also proving vital for fragile economies.

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