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Tourism: French lessons

Romanée Conti vineyards in Burgundy Credit: 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.

The good news is a changing of the guard at the French Tourism Development Agency, Atout France. The new cabinet-level minister, a new director in New York. The not-so-good news is a new logo.

Let’s start with the original mistake. “French Government Tourist Agency” was a mouthful, but Maison de la France, as it was known on its home turf, had a certain staid logic. It is, after all, a government-sponsored membership organization that is open to any business or public entity involved in travel — a big “house of tourism” (Germany’s equivalent was and is Goethehaus.) But someone decided to update the name and put some lipstick on the old girl, so they came up with Atout France.

You see, in French, “atout” is your strong suit, your trump card. But in English, a tout is the guy who gives you bad advice at the track. Not what you want from a government agency.

Now on to the logo. The designers originally came up with this: A clever way of promoting the sexy image of France with some subtle typography. You do see that the ‘r’ and ‘a’ gently show two chaste breasts, non?

The losing Atout France logo.

With great fanfare, Atout France asked for votes on four variations of a new logo. After parties in three cities where guests voted and an online election, they came up with this desexed version:

Atout France's winning logo.

It could just be a case of tin ear and it could be that the new name and the new logo play reasonably well in Germany, Britain, and Scandinavia — all sources of more visitors than the U.S. But the stumbling block, in this age, isn’t language, it’s online communication.

The new minister said his number one priority (after signage) was a new website. Visitors to France certainly deserve better than they’re getting now with the dismal and cluttered www.franceguide.com. The creators and managers of the existing site have hundreds of tiny constituencies to appease and are no doubt doing what they think is required of them: Herding the cats. But bureaucracy is both defensive and well-entrenched. Along with the new logo came word that FranceGuide.com has moved up from the number 106 ranking among travel sites to number 64. See? They seem to be saying, we’re getting better, we’ve changed, so you don’t have to walk out and start over.

There is, in fact, a slightly better new site in development (currently in beta), rendezvousenfrance.com/fr. Félicitations, I guess, but it may be too late for cosmetic improvements. And a national tourism website is daunting for a destination with 75 million visitors a year.

One interesting development: The tourism ministry is no longer tucked under Culture, but has been moved to Finance. Someone noticed that tourism is not only France’s number two source of employment (number one remains public sector jobs), but it’s the number one source of foreign currency. Culture’s a very nice quality-of-life frou-frou, merci, and all that, but money? That’s serious business, a job for the big boys.

When the French finance ministers finish dealing with this week’s threat to their country’s credit rating, they can pay attention once more to securing a nice piece of raw-milk Camembert for those 75 million dinners.

 

Full disclosure: The author’s trip to France earlier this year was sponsored by Atout France and Air France.

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