Faced with too many tourists, the natural sites of France are growing back

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Several very popular French natural sites are sounding the alarm. Access to certain creeks in Marseille and Corsica is now limited in order to limit erosion. Other villages struggling with mass tourism, such as Étretat in Normandy, are rethinking their management of the influx of visitors.

Can the cliffs of Etretat in Normandy really accommodate their million visitors each year? As France approaches the high season of summer holidays, Shaï-Hannah Mallet-Bitton, activist of the association Étretat Demain, is concerned about this question. “Every year it gets worse and it goes faster. I’m only 28 and I can even see how much the site has deteriorated,” sighs the lawyer, who spent part of her childhood in this village of 1,400 inhabitants in Normandy.

Signs of overtourism are everywhere: overflowing trash cans, hiking trails carved out by foot traffic, more frequent landslides, up to 400 kg of pebbles washed away from the beaches a day. Jean-Baptiste Renié, municipal councilor of Étretat, is worried that the district’s wastewater treatment plant will be pushed too far, because it has not been “fitted out to accommodate the 5 to 6,000 visitors a day in addition to the local population”. The system had to be shut down for maintenance last year “due to excessive usage”.

“After every big weekend, once all the tourists have left, the city is extremely dirty. When you visit the cliffs, you see papers everywhere, masks, cigarette butts,” says Shaï-Hanah Mallet-Bitton.

Volunteers from the Étretat Demain association clean up cigarette butts from the beaches.

“We need tourism but we have to find a balance. The tourists themselves would benefit the most. Many of them leave angry after spending several hours in the car without being able to find a parking lot, a place to eat or a toilet, due to a lack of sufficient infrastructure. This mass tourism does not satisfy anyone.

“In good health” regulation

Due to too many visitors, several French natural sites have gone so far as to impose compulsory time slot reservations for tourists. The Calanques de Marseille National Park now limits the number of people who can visit the creeks of Sugiton and Pierres Tombées to 400 per day. Both sites have been made more fragile due to soil erosion caused by the foot traffic of several thousand summer visitors before. Three of Corsica’s main tourist sites (the Lavezzi Islands, the Aiguilles de Bavella ridge and the Restonica Valley) have also instituted daily quotas from July.

For Julien Buot, director of the Agir Pour un Tourisme Responsable association, which brings together eco-conscious travel operators, this new trend in regulation is “healthy”. “There is a growing awareness among local elected officials and tourism operators at all levels that we cannot wait for things to get worse. The idea is to deal with the situation early enough to avoid having to shut down sites entirely. It points to new ways of managing tourist traffic, such as how the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region has teamed up with the navigation app Waze to suggest users return to the busiest sites in later hours. This initiative has also been taken up by Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its abbey alone recorded 608,421 visitors in 2021. Waze shows when the island is packed and lists notable tourist attractions in the surrounding area.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many French people have abandoned the idea of ​​going on vacation to foreign destinations in favor of French sites. “Some have decided to improvise as ‘wild adventurers’ in nature, but they were not used to frequenting natural spaces and these sites were not prepared to welcome so many people”, says Julien Buot. The natural park of Chartreuse in the Alps, being taken by storm, had to prohibit the bivouac last summer. “If too many hikers pitch their tents and light fires, it disturbs the natural environment – ​​flora, fauna – and also the local inhabitants.

Instagram overwhelms natural sites

Instagram is another recent phenomenon disrupting normal tourist habits. “Between the moment a site was classified by UNESCO and the moment when tourists started to arrive en masse, there was a period of several years. We had time to prepare. Today, an ‘influencer’ can post a photo of a place off the beaten path, and in a few weeks or even days, the site will be visited by hundreds of people.

Volunteers from the Clean my Calanques group collect waste left by visitors.

The important role that social media plays in overtourism is not a new idea for Shaï-Hanah Mallet-Bitton, who sees many tourists taking selfies from the edge of the Etretat cliff to create impactful posts. “We will have to think about delimiting the paths, because a real security problem is being created.” Two women have died this year after falling off the edge while posing for photos.

Improving trails, revamping signage, increasing litter collection, and upgrading to accommodate mass tourism comes at a cost the community is struggling to meet. For this reason, Jean-Baptiste Renié, the city councilor, is very happy that the cliff of Étretat will soon be officially labeled “Grand site de France”: “This will allow us to put the whole area aside, to obtain funding for its preservation and better manage the flow of tourists.

This article has been translated from the original in French.


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