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    Tourism: French lessons

    With Seattle's tourism funding all but gone, France offers inspiration and a few tips.

    Seafood mousse at La Winery in Bordeaux

    Seafood mousse at La Winery in Bordeaux Ronald Holden

    Romanée Conti vineyards in Burgundy

    Romanée Conti vineyards in Burgundy Ronald Holden

    Economic development is an engine that runs on many cylinders (manufacturing, education, construction, housing, health care, transportation, to name a few). Easily overlooked is travel and tourism — a sprawling, loosely defined category with a relatively low profile. The hospitality industry in the U.S. isn't particularly well-organized politically, and its customers — “tourists” — are often considered a nuisance. It's a huge, decentralized business (as many people work in the restaurant industry as in the automobile industry) but, unlike, say, manufacturing, it has no history of cooperation or mutually beneficial associations, so it has less influence when governments set economic development budgets that include tourism promotion.

    While Seattle frets at the closing of Washington State's office of tourism promotion, and the local hospitality industry volunteers to tax itself to raise a paltry $5 million or so, other states and other countries are raising bundles of cash to entice travelers to visit, spend money, stay in hotels, rent cars, eat in restaurants, and go shopping.

    First, a look at France, where tourism is taken very seriously indeed. La Belle France! No country is more dependent on international tourism, no country welcomes more visitors (over 75 million in 2010). And yet, et pourtant . . .

    Every time there's a study, the conclusions are the same: France offers the most cultural sites of any European country, some of the best food, most spectacular scenery, and liveliest city life, but its sense of welcome is, on the whole, insufficient.

    The perceived lack of welcome leads to shorter stays and less revenue from tourism, so the new Minister of Tourism, Frédéric LeFebvre, has a strong financial incentive to improve things. (We'll leave for another time the fact that there's a cabinet-level official in France responsible for tourism development.) LeFebvre is going to start with the international gateway airports (Charles de Gaulle and Orly), the national railroad SNCF, and the Paris métro to improve, if nothing else, the quality of signage.

    Yes, signs are important, but so is service. Doesn't help if there are long lines at understaffed immigration, customs, and security checkpoints. Doesn't help if there are shiny new information booths if waiters in the cafés are impatient. Doesn't help if cabbies are rude or the sidewalks covered with dog shit.

    "Bonjour" used to be the catchphrase for a nationwide campaign that reminded every retailer in the country that tourists are visitors to be cossetted rather than transients to be ignored. Lefebvre's response is to commission yet another study to elicit the reaction of international visitors to the quality of French welcome.

    As for me, I've seen a sea-change over the past 25 years — most of it coming in just the last few — in the number and quality of tourism resources for wine and culinary travel. Rare indeed is the Gallic "pfft!" and shrug of indifference. Courtesy is everywhere.

    At Rendez-Vous France, a travel industry trade show held in Bordeaux earlier this year, the stars were the newcomers — small businesses (hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, even wineries) with a commitment to hard work and good service. The 650 French exhibitors welcomed 900 tour operators from 57 countries (almost two thirds from Europe, only one in six from the Americas), with some 20,000 20-minute appointments held in the course of the two-day event. The most sought-after tour operators were the Brazilians and the Russians, whose clients spend the most money when they travel. (Used to be the Yanks, decades ago.)

    This was the first Rendez-Vous since UNESCO officially listed "The French Meal" on its roster of intangible World Heritage. With an hour each day for lunch, the trade show's catering company managed to serve a three-course, sit-down lunch to all 2,000 attendees, with white and red wines, sparkling and still water, plus coffee. And not iceberg lettuce, either: Salmon gravlax with a mayonnaise dressing; free-range guinea fowl with carrots, and a molded fruit compote.

    But no fromage. They save that for dinner.

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    Posted Fri, Aug 12, 2:21 p.m. Inappropriate

    Well, as you point out, there's a whole lot more for tourists to see in France. Even though I'm a Seattle native, about all I can suggest to anyone visiting for the first time would be Space Needle, Pike Place Market, ferry ride to Bremerton/Bainbridge and maybe the library and EMP if they have an interest in architecture. And a drive along Lake Washington Boulevard if they have a car. I dare speak the blasphemy: Seattle is just another medium-size city among many, and aside from its location not all that different from Denver or Charlotte...


    Posted Fri, Aug 12, 4:25 p.m. Inappropriate

    My family has a standard tour we do for out-of-town guests that does a bit more than your suggested itinerary, but it's the apples and oranges part of your argument that I would really disagree with -- there's a huge difference between promoting a country and promoting a city.

    But whatever the context, I am truly frustrated that resources for local tourism (city/region/state) are being decimated. This is a part of the economy that puts money in our pocket as well as fostering better relations with all kinds of people -- it's very short-sighted to toss it aside.


    Posted Sat, Aug 13, 2:27 a.m. Inappropriate

    France offers beauty and charm in many of the things that have been made by its people. The U.S. offers a million indistinguishable strip malls, the "geography of nowhere." Here in the NW we do have ancient forests and reasonably wild places that people haven't yet gotten their hands on much, and hopefully won't. Such places are scarce in France, and those of us NW'erners who appreciate such things can feel the lack of them. But practically everything else is way more interesting in France. No way can the USA ever compete with the place.

    The people there are a lot healthier looking, too.

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