France, sustainability and mass tourism

Lizet Wesselman - 15/12/2023

France, sustainability and mass tourism

Lizet Wesselman - 15/12/2023

France has been winning in terms of number of tourists per year for several years now. With its rich history, breathtaking landscapes, art and culture, the country has an irresistible appeal to travellers from all over the world. Namely, an impressive 83.8 million foreign tourists a year! You would expect that, in addition to quite a lot of income, that would also bring quite a few problems. Yet, France has got it pretty well together, when it comes to sustainable tourism and preventing problems caused by mass tourism. What makes this country so special, and how does it retain its charm and authenticity?

France’s diversity

One of the main reasons why France attracts so many tourists is its abundance of cultural charm and rich history. Cities like Paris, Versailles, Lyon and Marseille are dotted with impressive monuments, museums and architectural masterpieces. The Louvre in Paris, for instance, houses an invaluable collection of artworks, including the famous Mona Lisa. France’s rich history, from its medieval castles to its charming rural villages, offers visitors an unforgettable journey through time.

But also the charm of the wine regions, the beautiful nature in, for example, the Pyrenees, Normandy and Provence, and the peaceful French culture where enjoyment is paramount, offer something for everyone. The variety of beautiful places makes it a country that keeps endlessly attracting more visits, and you never get tired of it. At least, I don’t. It is a favourite with me too. So how is it that it rarely feels like the country is overflowing with tourists?

Healthy spread of tourists

One of the reasons why France can handle the influx of tourists reasonably well is precisely because of that variety. There is something for everyone, and the exact location depends on your interests. But even per interest, you have so many options. Besides Paris, France has four major cities and several medium-sized towns where you can indulge if you like crowds, activities, museums and a wide choice of catering establishments.

In addition, there are seas of options for lovers of small villages and history. The vast majority of France was left standing or well restored during World War II, giving you an endless choice of small villages still bursting with history.

And you have plenty of options in terms of nature, too. The Alps and the Pyrenees are big enough for hefty hordes of people, both summer hikers and winter skiers. The coasts all have their own character, thanks to the location and currents of the seas. In Normandy, you come mainly for the history of D-day or the impressive cliffs. While the coast of southern France is the place to be for your summer beach holiday. Enough for everyone, but therefore also enough space to cope with all those tourists.

Preservation of authentic traditions

In addition, the French value the preservation of traditions. This has two great sides, when considering sustainable travel. So first, they take great care to preserve cultural heritage. Small villages are not simply overrun by mega hotels and the coasts are not filled with expensive resorts. So again, this results in the widespread attractiveness of France, as there is still plenty of beauty to see everywhere and not everything is centred on a few areas.

But it also ensures, that tourism does not take over. The French as a whole people, care more about their traditions than profits from non-traditional tourism businesses. And so that is precisely why they continue to attract tourists, because that authentic experience of France is so incredibly appealing. So this actually makes France pre-eminently a sustainable travel destination with a focus mainly on responsible tourism, preserving that local culture and traditions.

Sustainable tourism

But then how is that sustainable? I think it certainly does factor in that France is a rich country with a large export market (wine, cheese, just to name a few). So, in short, they don’t need tourism to survive. Of course, those 83.8 million visitors a year give the economy a big boost, but there are plenty of other jobs. So the French people are just doing their thing, without feeling that urge to build resorts just to attract more tourists.

What you often notice in countries where mass tourism is a problem is that there is also a lot of poverty and/or unemployment and it is cheap for big companies to expand there. (With some exceptions) So foreign investors come and buy up land to build resorts there. This provides some employment for locals, but most of the proceeds end up going not to the local economy, but to the rich investment.

The result: lots of tourists, but little income. Sometimes resulting in even more poverty, crime (pickpockets, scammers) and pollution because there is no money to adapt the infrastructure to all those tourists.

So a country that already has a well-functioning economy outside tourism is in a better position to manage that. France has also always actively promoted sustainable tourism, by providing good public transport, reducing plastic and encouraging sustainable accommodation, among other things.

Making sure to support the local economy, is a big part of responsible tourism. Read more about how to make a positive local impact.

So, should we all follow France?

It is obviously not that black and white. France is doing very well, and is doing quite well in every area of sustainability. Perhaps the Paris agreement also provides some pressure to lead by example as a host country. But of course, you can only steer people to a certain extent. There are also examples of mass tourism that emerged fairly quickly, and again, you can’t expect governments to be busy 24/7 with how many tourists are coming somewhere. As a result, you only notice it when it is a problem, and so you start acting after the fact. An example of this in the small Austrian village of Hallstatt, where the 700 inhabitants were really fed up with welcoming some 10,000 tourists every day in the summer of 2023.

Of course, there are also locations that are so unique that it is difficult to regulate and promote alternatives, for instance. Think of Venice. There, new measures are regularly taken against the large numbers of tourists, but you are still not going to prevent them from coming.

From 2024, visitors to Venice will have to pay a €5 fee to enter the city on busy days. These are mainly weekends and public holidays, when visitor numbers are even higher. With this, they hope to at least encourage day visitors to come on other days, to spread the pressure a bit. Perhaps the number of days will be increased or a limit on the number of visitors will eventually be imposed. But really solving the problem of mass tourism is probably not going to happen.

So it is quite a tricky issue, which is different for each location and country. But all in all, France is a good option if you are looking for a sustainable travel location without feeling overwhelmed by mass tourism too soon. It really is crowded in some places, but still always sustainable (in my experience).

Traintravel in France

So France’s train network is one of those measures taken by the French government to make France a sustainable travel destination. France’s train system works well, and you can get very far by train. Read all about French trains here. Want to take a train trip across France, but don’t know where to go? Then check out my train travel itineraries for inspiration.