Faced with an excess of tourists, French natural sites are fighting back

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Several overcrowded French natural sites have sounded the alarm. In the Calanques in Marseille and Corsica, access to tourists is now limited in order to fight against erosion. Other tourist villages, which consider themselves victims of mass tourism, want to rethink the management of visitor flows.

Can the cliff of Étretat in Normandy support its million visitors per year? This is the question posed by Shaï-Hanah Mallet-Bitton, activist of the Étretat association tomorrow, even as France begins the great tourist season of the summer holidays. “Every year, it gets worse and worse, and it goes so fast. I’m only 28 and I’ve already had the opportunity to realize this degradation”, laments the lawyer who spent part of his childhood in this Norman village of 1,400 inhabitants.

Overflowing garbage cans, natural paths dug as long as they have been trampled, more frequent landslides, beaches emptied of their pebbles up to 400 kg some days. According to Jean-Baptiste Renié, municipal councilor and elected member of the opposition, the city’s wastewater treatment plant, which “is not calibrated to receive 5,000 to 6,000 visitors per day in addition to the inhabitants”, is undermined. It had to be shut down last year for maintenance “caused by its overuse”.

“After each long weekend, once the tourists have left, the city is extremely dirty. When you pass over the cliffs, you find papers, masks and cigarette butts”, noted Shaï-Hanah Mallet-Bitton.

“We need tourism, but we have to find a balance. Tourists will be the first to benefit. Many of them leave angry after driving for several hours without being able to park, eat or find toilets, for lack of “infrastructure. This mass tourism does not satisfy anyone.”

A “healthy” regulation

Due to their overcrowding, several French natural sites have come to impose compulsory reservation slots for tourists. Thus, the Calanques National Park in Marseille has decided to limit to 400 people per day the frequentation of the creeks of Sugiton and Pierres Tombées, two sites weakened by soil erosion due to the passage of several thousand daily visitors in summer. In Corsica, three emblematic tourist sites (the Lavezzi Islands, the Aiguilles de Bavella and the Restonica Valley) have also adopted quotas since the beginning of July.

For Julien Buot, director of the Agir association for responsible tourism, bringing together tour operators committed to an ecological approach, this phenomenon of regulation is “beneficial”. “There is an awareness of local elected officials and tourism stakeholders at all levels: we must not wait for things to degenerate. The idea is to do it early enough not to come to a total ban on sites,” he said. And the tourism professional to list new practices to better distribute the flow of visits, such as in Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur (Paca), where the region has partnered with the Waze application to offer users come back for a walk on the most produced sites at late hours. An initiative also adopted at Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the subject of 4.67 million visits in 2021. Waze indicates whether the site is saturated and suggests other notable tourist sites in the vicinity .

With the Covid-19 crisis, many French people have swapped holidays abroad for French destinations. “Some have improvised micro-adventurers, but they were not used to going to natural sites and these places were not prepared to welcome so many people.” Taken by storm since the pandemic, the Chartreuse natural park in the Alps in particular, had to ban bivouacs last summer. “If too many hikers pitch their tents and light fires, this disturbs the natural environment: the fauna, the flora but also the inhabitants”, continues Julien Buot.

Instagram disrupts natural site tourism

Another new tourist phenomenon in recent years, Instagram has come to upset the game. “Between the time when Unesco classified a site and the time when tourists landed, it could take several years. today, all it takes is for an influencer to post a photo of an unusual place and, in a few weeks, even a few days, the site will be visited by hundreds of people.

The importance of social networks in this phenomenon of tourist overcrowding is no stranger to Shaï-Hanah Mallet-Bitton, who sees many visitors taking selfies on the edge of the cliffs of Étretat to post their snapshot. “It will be necessary to consider marking the trails because a real security problem arises.” Two women have died this year after falling over the air while posing.

Better marking the paths, reworking the signage, increasing the collection of garbage… all this has a cost that the municipality finds difficult to bear. Also, the municipal councilor Jean-Baptiste Renié is delighted with the forthcoming labeling of the cliffs of Étretat under the title of “Grand site de France”. “This will allow us to sanctuary an entire area, to obtain funding to preserve the site and to better organize tourist flows.”


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