France’s Natural Attractions Push Back Against Too Many Visitors

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Many of France’s popular natural areas are raising the alarm. In order to prevent erosion, access to some of the Calanques coves in Marseille and Corsica is now restricted. Other towns that are having trouble with mass tourism, like Étretat in Normandy, are reevaluating how they manage the influx of tourists.

Can the Normandy cliffs at Étretat support their one million annual visitors? Sha-Hannah Mallet-Bitton, an activist with the Étretat Demain association, is preoccupied with this question as France enters the peak of the summer vacation period. “Every year, it worsens and progresses more quickly. Even as a young person of 28 years old, the lawyer who spent a portion of her childhood in this Normandy village of 1,400 people laments, “Even I can see how much the site has been degraded.

Overflowing trash cans, hollowed-out hiking trails from heavy foot traffic, more frequent landslides, and up to 400 kg of pebbles per day being removed from beaches are just a few of the signs of overtourism that can be seen everywhere. The wastewater treatment facility in the area, according to Jean-Baptiste Renié, is being overtaxed because it was “not developed to handle the 5 to 6,000 visitors a day on top of the local population.” Last year, the system had to be shut down for maintenance “due to overuse.”

“When all the visitors have left after a major weekend, the town is incredibly filthy. “Papers, masks, and cigarette butts are all over the cliffs when you go there,” claims Sha-Hanah Mallet-Bitton.

“Tourism is necessary, but a balance must be struck. The biggest winners would be the travelers themselves. Because there isn’t enough infrastructure, many of them leave angry after spending several hours in the car without being able to find parking, a place to eat, or restrooms. No one is satisfied by this mass tourism.

“Healthy” regulation

Numerous French natural sites have gone as far as requiring visitors to make reservations for specific timeslots due to an excessive number of visitors. 400 people a day are now allowed to visit the calanques of Sugiton and Pierres Tombées in the Calanques National Park of Marseille. Due to ground erosion brought on by the previous summer foot traffic of several thousand visitors, both sites are now more vulnerable. The Lavezzi islands, the Bavella Needles mountain ridge, and the Restonica valley, three of Corsica’s most popular tourist destinations, all implemented daily quotas beginning in July.

This new trend toward regulation is “healthy,” according to Julien Buot, director of the organization Agir Pour un Tourisme Responsable (“Act for Responsable Tourism”), which unites environmentally conscious travel providers. “Local elected officials and tourism business owners at all levels are becoming more aware of the fact that we cannot wait until things get worse. The goal is to handle the situation quickly enough to avoid having to completely shut down the sites. The Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region has partnered with the Waze navigation app to suggest users return to the busiest sites at later hours, for example, as one of the new methods he mentions for managing tourism traffic. The Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, has also embraced this initiative. In 2021, just its abbey saw 608,421 visitors. When the island is completely populated, Waze lets users know, and it also lists popular tourist destinations nearby.

Many French people no longer consider taking vacations in foreign countries in favor of visiting French sites since the Covid-19 pandemic’s start. According to Julien Buot, some people made the decision to improvise as “wild adventurers” while in the wilderness, but they weren’t accustomed to visiting natural areas and these sites weren’t equipped to accommodate so many people. Last summer, the Chartreuse Natural Park in the Alps had to outlaw bivouac camping due to its popularity. The natural environment, including the local flora and fauna, as well as the inhabitants, are disturbed if too many hikers pitch their tents and light fires.

Instagram overtakes natural sites

Instagram is a recent development that is upending traditional travel trends. “There used to be a period of several years between the time a site was listed by UNESCO and the time tourists began to arrive in large numbers. We had enough time to plan. Today, a “influencer” can upload a picture of a place that is off the beaten path, and within a few weeks or even a few days, the site will receive hundreds of visitors.

Sha-Hanah Mallet-Bitton has observed numerous tourists taking selfies from the edge of the Étretat cliff in order to produce eye-catching posts, so she is not a stranger to the idea that social media plays a significant role in overtourism. We’ll need to consider roping off the trails because a serious security issue is emerging. This year, two women perished after falling off the ledge while posing for photos.

The community is finding it difficult to afford the costs associated with upgrading to accommodate mass tourism, reworking signage, enhancing trails, and increasing waste collection. The Étretat cliff will soon be recognized as a “Grand site of France,” which is why city council member Jean-Baptiste Renié is thrilled about it: “This will allow us to set the whole zone aside, obtain funding for its preservation, and better manage the stream of tourists.”

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