Arras in the Pas-de-Calais is looking for English-speaking local people to act as ambassadors for the town as they prepare to welcome thousands of English-speaking visitors for the Centenary Anniversary of the Battle of Arras from April to June.
Aware that the French have a reputation for being unfriendly towards visitors, the Mairie has set up what is perhaps a first in France, a team of volunteers, called Welcomers, who are willing to lend a hand during major events but also to come to the aid of any tourist they might come across as they go about their daily business in the town.
“We want visitors to feel that we are happy to see them here and that when they go home they will tell their friends that people in Arras were helpful, informative and pleasant, just as French visitors do when they come back from a trip to New York or the UK,” says the Director of Communications, Anthony Blondeau.
140 Welcomers have now been recruited. “I was very pleased with the response as I only expected around 30 as it is a new initiative. They were invited to a three-hour hour meeting where we explained their role and now they have a personalised Welcomers badge and map.
“They had to be people who lived in or near the town, wanted the anniversary celebrations to be a real success, are proud of the place they come from and can speak some English. We will ask them to help us out on the really big days; guiding tourists, handing out leaflets or manning the car parks and to be friendly on the streets at all other times during this intensive three month period. They might also be able to offer accommodation if the hotels and chambres d’hôtes are full.
“It is non-paid but in return they will have certain privileges, such as reduced entry to all the World War 1 commemorative sites between the Somme and Belgium. It is also a chance for the people of Arras to say thank you to the families of soldiers who did so much for the area in 1917.”
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Mr Blondeau says they are still looking out for volunteers and they would be pleased to hear from English speaking local residents. He hopes it will be a long term scheme: “Tourism is really developing fast in Arras and every year we have more and more visitors from abroad and I would like to have a permanent team. My long term wish though is for it to become spontaneous and natural for our residents to welcome people to our town.”
Ten thousand Canadians, New Zealanders, British and Australians are expected to be in the area in memory of the battle which started on April 9 1917 and which was the biggest surprise attack during WW1. In 39 days 150,000 people were killed.
Soldiers from New Zealand created 20km of underground tunnels, some of which can be visited today.
There will be son-et-lumière, exhibitions, visits, concerts and commemoration services up until May with the biggest ceremony on April 9.
Get involved by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, by visiting the town's Facebook page or website www.arras.fr