PAP 62 : Post-oil tourism, a delicate transition

Anne Vourc’h, November 2022

Le Collectif Paysages de l’Après-Pétrole (PAP)

Anxious to ensure the energy transition and, more generally, the transition of our societies towards sustainable development, 60 planning professionals have joined together in an association to promote the central role that landscape approaches can play in regional planning policies. In this article, Anne Vourc’h, founding director (2000-2018) of the Réseau des Grands Sites de France, draws up an inventory of the new management tools and modes of frequentation of major tourist sites.

To download : article-62-collectif-pap_av-.pdf (3.9 MiB)

The summer of 2022 will be remembered in France and much of Europe. Heatwaves brought daytime temperatures to unprecedented levels over most of the country, rivers stopped flowing, springs dried up, and soils experienced unusual levels of drought. Large-scale fires that were difficult to control multiplied. On the Aquitaine coast, which was hit at the peak of its tourist season, many inhabitants of residential areas had to be evacuated and large campsites were completely burnt out. All of this against the backdrop of a series of difficulties linked to the war in Ukraine, particularly in terms of the availability and cost of energy in a country used to having it without constraint.

The summer of 2022 was also the year when the notion of quotas emerged in France, when the Calanques National Park decided to set up a system drastically limiting access to an overcrowded cove, which caused a lot of ink to flow. And where a whispered and marginal, but explosive alert in the world of tourism began to emerge: the prospect of limiting air travel.

A summer of accelerated awareness

Awareness of the impact of tourism on the urban environment is not new in cities such as Venice or Barcelona. The congestion of public spaces, the increase in rents, the transformation of shops and the questioning of the habitability of city centres: these impacts were little mentioned, or even denied, in French cities, especially as the desertion of cities by tourists following the Covid crisis had helped to mute the criticism1. However, this summer 2022, in Marseille or Ajaccio, demonstrations took place against the huge cruise ships pouring their cloud of pollution in the middle of the city and their thousands of clients invading the streets for the few hours they are allowed on land. Landscapes, natural spaces and cultural heritage have always been the basis and motivation for tourism activity. This resource, or raw material, is exploited with varying degrees of care depending on the location and form of tourism. The demand for nature and the pressure on natural areas have been growing for several decades, but have exploded since the end of the 2020 confinement and the virtual closure of the borders. All or almost all of them are seeing their attendance increase from year to year, progressively widening to include audiences that are unfamiliar to them and whose expectations and behaviour are new. Nature, sports and leisure activities are diversifying and developing strongly. The use of quotas, adopted this summer for access to the Sugiton cove, was strongly publicised by the Calanques National Park. A compulsory reservation system was set up to limit the number of people authorised to visit this small, usually crowded beach each day. Its access by a single road, its location in the heart of the national park, with no commercial activities directly impacted, has facilitated this option, which is far from being a solution adapted to all natural areas, and not without probable knock-on effects on nearby coastal areas2. Although its introduction is subject to discussion in a country attached to free access to natural areas, and even if its reproducibility remains limited, this event sends a message to a world of tourism accustomed to promoting the growth of a market without limits: tourism is a practice with a strong impact on nature and heritage; there is a limit to the recreational and tourist uses that natural spaces can support; their access and uses must be rethought collectively if we do not want them to be restricted everywhere, or be reduced one day to exclusively virtual visits in the metaverse. Such a message is important for this sector (companies and destinations) which remains little aware of the challenges of the transition and largely lulled by the euphoria of quantitative performance. Other signals coming from the very heart of the tourism industry are perceptible. For example, Augustin de Romanet, CEO of Aéroports de Paris, calls for moderation in the use of air travel. He invites « people to be more reasonable in air travel (…) before we have - which will be the case in 30 years’ time - planes powered either by electricity, hydrogen or sustainable fuels made from green electricity », concluding paradoxically that « if tomorrow morning air traffic were to decrease, it is not an existential tragedy for us 3« .

At the same time, Caroline Mignon, president of the Association des Acteurs du Tourisme Durable (ATD4), defended the idea that in order to reduce the volume of air travel, « the creation of a carbon pass, similar to the health pass, would be an effective and fair solution for achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement 5« . The courage of this proposal is clear. We can also guess at its divisive nature and the ethical and political questions that would be raised by the adoption of a control system that measures the movements of each individual and their impacts. Taking into account international tourism, not domestic tourism, the UNWTO estimates that the number of international tourists has increased from 525 million in 1995 to 1.3 billion in 2017, a doubling in twenty years. After the two years of Covid, the recovery is very strong - as evidenced by the records in air traffic that have been hailed by all sides. The number of international tourists is expected to reach 2 billion by 2030.

What share does tourism have in GHG emissions?

According to a study carried out in 160 countries and published in 2018 in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, tourism accounts for 6.1% of global GDP, but 8% of total carbon emissions produced worldwide. In France, the world’s leading destination, the carbon footprint of tourism activities is higher. A study by ADEME published in September 2021 establishes that it represents 11% of total national GHG emissions 6 (for 8% of GDP). Transport accounts for 77% of these emissions: 68% to get to the destination, 9% for travel once arrived. The remaining 20% comes from accommodation, catering, consumption and purchases etc.

A one-week trip abroad by plane - the ADEME study takes the example of an eight-day stay in New York - emits two tonnes of CO2. In other words, it takes us to the maximum of what our total annual carbon footprint should be by 2050, including daily travel, heating, food and other consumption. This assessment shows how far we have to go and how important our individual choices are in an area where we have few constraints on our decisions, unlike commuting or home insulation. Globally, an Australian study published in 2018 shows that the carbon footprint of tourism is growing at 4% per year, far exceeding the decarbonisation capacity of available technologies, at least for the next few decades. Globally, travel businesses, as well as public tourism institutions, still seem unaware of the huge gap that persists between the sector’s practices and what more sustainable practice would call for 7. The sector is still fascinated by the policy of numbers, which consists of expecting more and more passengers, more and more visitors and more and more overnight stays 8 and of appealing to their customers with the same dream images. Here again, the ATD collective stands out by seeking to define other tools to measure the tourist performance of destinations, basing them on sustainable development indicators 9. A battery of ten indicators is proposed covering the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the control of water, energy and waste consumption, the protection of fragile areas, soft mobility, the satisfaction of visitors, inhabitants and professionals, the training of professionals in sustainable tourism, access to tourism for all, and the impact of economic spin-offs on the territory. The sector’s reaction to this reality, which it is having difficulty integrating, is limited for the moment to a rather derisory carbon compensation (tree planting) or to support for small community projects in southern destinations. Customers respond very little to these invitations, as one French tour operator noted with disappointment at the discrepancy between the high level of good intentions declared in surveys and the very low number of customers choosing the « donation » option when paying their bill.

A change in our relationship to holidays and travel

It is becoming increasingly clear that the very heart of the tourism industry’s business model is now being challenged. And, more broadly, our relationship to leisure time, our conception of holidays and travel as it has developed and spread in recent times. For those who leave home on holiday, such use of their free time expresses the need to get away from their daily environment, to change their rhythm and to decompress 10. It is the desire for other horizons, for discoveries, for encounters. The notion of holiday is intrinsically associated with the idea of travel: don’t we say « going on holiday 11« ? Being on holiday while staying at home is almost an oxymoron, at least for urban dwellers who have the necessary resources and affirm, in their tourist practices, the pleasure of being able to enjoy a balanced lifestyle as well as a way of signifying a social status, a standard of living and the cultural quality of their habits. For the generations that have known the « triumphant utopia of the free time revolution », as Jean Viard analyses in his numerous writings on tourism as a social fact 12, the changes to come are difficult to conceive: if not to give up, at least to reduce long-distance travel requiring air travel, as the « flight-shame » movement invites us to do? Go away less often? Opt for holidays close to home? Or even for holidays to be lived at home ("staycation")?

Travel and the environmental dimension, which is the subject of this article, are of course not the only area of questioning for assessing and building the sustainability of tourism. We should also consider its impact on the socio-economic balance of territories and towns, with its effects in terms of pressure on property and gentrification in the liabilities column; and in the added value column, the maintenance throughout the year of basic services and shops that would not exist without the clientele of the tourist season, openness to others and encounters, and the contribution to cultural and social life in many rural regions. On the map of rural territories, their tourist or non-tourist character is an important marker of economic and cultural differentiation.

Landscape as a key resilience factor for post-oil tourism

The ability of cities and living areas to become more environmentally sustainable and pleasant (less pollution, less noise, more nature in the city, more accessible natural spaces and forests, etc.), and socially fulfilling (community life and engagement, creative and artistic practices, cultural, sporting and festive activities, etc.), is crucial to make people want to spend not only their productive time there, but also more of their free time. Can we not remedy the growing compartmentalisation between spaces with productive functions on the one hand and recreational functions on the other, forcing people to go further and further afield to find spaces for discovery and resourcing? Can we not invent forms of de-landscaping, or even re-landscaping, of proximity 13? If the desire to travel expresses an aspiration to discover other places, to follow other rhythms, to quench a thirst for otherness and renewal, an alternative to distant tourism is clearly to be found in our ability to affirm the diversity of territorial identities. The environmental quality of the territories and their landscape and heritage diversity are more than ever the determining elements of their attractiveness. It is a question of cultivating the landscape uniqueness of each of them and fighting against the banalization of landscapes punctuated by the same commercial zones and logistics platforms in the suburbs, the same sheds and agro-industrial installations in the countryside and the same energy and road infrastructures everywhere. The success of the great itineraries (especially on foot and by bike, but also by river or on horseback) is proof of this. Today, this success reaches completely new audiences, irrigating marginal territories, and brings dynamics and economic spin-offs that were unthinkable ten years ago. But who would want to travel in a degraded and unstructured landscape? Thus, mobilised around this issue of « situated tourism 14«  and demonstrating their capacity to innovate in terms of sustainable tourism, many territories are now banking on their singularity and demonstrating their capacity to innovate in terms of sustainable tourism, notably the Natural Parks and the Grands Sites de France 15.

Some local responses to global issues

Outside the main routes and conurbations, accessibility and mobility by low-carbon transport are notoriously deficient in France. Trains do not reach much of the rural areas and their price is often a deterrent. Some of France’s Grands Sites have carried out a full-scale test of the possibility of access and discovery without a car, for three- to four-day « car-free nature escapades » 16. This test revealed that the possibilities were in fact greater than presumed (including by the territory itself), but largely unknown and under-exploited. Without waiting for heavy and hypothetical investments in infrastructures, the offer can sometimes be substantially improved by clarifying visitor information - today a real maze -, as well as by a better coordination of public and private actors of the territory. The legitimacy of the managers of natural areas to deal with tourism has long been discussed by the local authorities and their dedicated structures (tourist offices, ADT, CRT 17), but their intervention is now more assertive. First of all, they are helping tourism stakeholders to adopt more ecological practices that are more firmly rooted in their territory, such as the natural parks with their « Esprit parc national » or « Valeurs parc naturel régional » brand. The search for a global construction of more eco-responsible destinations also requires tourism companies to enter into collective territorial approaches in order to define a global offer that can be understood by visitors. It is clear that regulating the growing pressure of tourism has become a major challenge for the most attractive areas. For several years now, managers of natural areas have been implementing measures to regulate the flow of tourists, which are often not very visible because they are progressive and are negotiated locally in order to be acceptable to both inhabitants and visitors: reducing access by car to natural areas, limiting the number of maritime shuttles to protected islands, limiting high-impact practices in the most fragile areas; but also raising public awareness and changing the way tourism is communicated 18. Decisions that are often not easy to take, as in the Canigó Massif which, in 2020, courageously closed the motorised access trails in the heart of the massif in favour of several balconies from which to discover its majestic slopes, and held firm despite strong pressure to the contrary. The gorge sites (Ardèche, Tarn, Verdon, etc.) are sparing no effort to regulate white-water activities (canoeing, rafting, canyoning, etc.) in a difficult dialogue with the service providers, as their impact is so strong in terms of economy and employment and, as a result, their political weight is so important.

Today, these issues go beyond the occasional responses that have been made to the most fragile areas. Generally speaking, strategies for spreading tourism must be thought out and implemented on a territorial scale to avoid the phenomenon of « all together, at the same time, in the same place », which generates ecological and social imbalances as well as visitor dissatisfaction.

Rethinking tourism?

We can date the appearance of tourism within the aristocratic class in the 18th century in the West, we can follow its democratisation (relative, admittedly, but undeniable) since the 20th century and its considerable development in the era of globalisation. The 21st century and its ecological challenges no doubt call for a reconsideration of its fundamentals. But the tourism industry is not the only one to be challenged about its capacity to align itself with contemporary expectations, constraints and issues.

So are our territories and their development methods: what is their capacity to better respond, in proximity, to our tremendous thirst for nature, for areas of beauty, freedom and resourcing? And finally, each and every one of us must invent a different kind of tourism and « a different way of being a tourist 19« . Chosen transition or suffered transition? The answer also lies with each of us, sometimes inhabitants here, sometimes tourists elsewhere.

  • 1 Thus, the officials of the City of Paris, the leading tourist destination in France and itself the leading tourist destination in the world, refused to consider, until recently, that overtourism could exist in the heart of Paris. Cf. Jean-François Martins, deputy mayor in charge of tourism, and Jean-François Rial, « Pour un tourisme à impact positif », Terra Nova, December 2019

  • 2 The regulation of the Sugiton approach by the sea is much more difficult, as the Park recognises. Because it directly affects economic interests : boat rental companies, tourist shuttles…

  • 3 Interview with BFM Business, L’Echo touristique 22/9/2022. It should nevertheless be remembered that the project to create Terminal 4 at Roissy is still on the table, although it has been postponed by the Minister of Ecological Transition at the beginning of 2021. This would allow the airport to receive 450 flights per day by 2037, i.e. 40 million additional passengers per year.

  • 4 Association federating 250 public and private actors and constituting a committed and innovative place of reflection and help for change in the French tourism sector.

  • 5 Round table at the International French Tourism Market in Paris, which will host a sustainable tourism area for the first time in 2022.

  • 6 « Bilan des émissions de gaz à effet de serre du secteur du tourisme en France », ADEME, April 2021. The study took into account the emissions of French people staying in France and French people travelling abroad, but not the emissions generated by foreign tourists to access French territory (assuming that the latter were equivalent to the emissions generated by French people travelling abroad).

  • 7 Cf. the speeches made at the International Forum in Evora (Portugal), September 2021, bringing together the world of tourism businesses:

  • 8 For France, the world’s leading destination with 88 million international visitors in 2018, the objectives set by the State three years ago were 100 million by 2025. A contradictory estimate put forward by Guillaume Cromer, former president of Acteurs du tourisme durable, evaluates that, to be in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement, this objective should be reduced to 30 million…

  • 9 « Measurer autrement sa performance touristique, guide méthodologique sur les indicateurs d’une destination durable », ATD, November 2021,

  • 10 It should not be forgotten that in France the rate of non departures on holiday is around 35%, a figure which has been levelling off for the last 40 years. Non-departures are essentially linked to economic reasons.

  • 11 This has become the official definition of the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) which defines a holiday as a minimum stay of four nights away from home.

  • 12 Jean Viard, Le Triomphe d’une utopie - Vacances, loisirs, voyages : la révolution des temps libres, Editions de l’Aube, 2015.

  • 13 Jean-Christophe Bailly, Le Dépaysement, Voyages en France, Le Seuil, 2011

  • 14 Roger Goudiard, « La redécouverte d’un tourisme culturel et de proximité, un atout bas carbone - en relisant Hassan Zaoual », Signé PAP, January 2022

  • 15 Sustainable tourism in practice : 20 innovative examples in the Grands Sites de France

  • 16

  • 17 Tourist offices, departmental tourist agencies, regional tourist committees.

  • 18 « Comment s’adresser aux visiteurs pour favoriser les pratiques de tourisme durable ?", Marie Le Scour and Soline Archambault, Espaces 368 magazine, Dossier Tourisme durable, oxymore ou horizon ?, September-October 2022.

  • 19 Anne Vourc’h, « Inventing another way of being a tourist », L’Eléphant, July 2019


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