A village in Alsace has been named ‘France’s favourite village’, an accolade that can provide a welcome boost for tourism but can also cause issues due to an immediate spike in visitors.
Bergheim (Haut-Rhin, Grand Est) is a 2,300-inhabitant village and won the 2022 competition votes among viewers and internet users. It is the fourth village in Alsace to win the prize in recent years after Eguisheim (2013), Kaysersberg (2017) and Hunspach (2020).
It is popular for its 14th-century houses and Renaissance-era buildings.
What is more surprising is that Bergheim did not apply for the competition but was instead selected by the production team, which considered that it had a strong chance of winning.
Mayor Elisabeth Schneider told France 3: “We didn’t apply. They called us to tell us that they had selected our village to represent the region, because they thought it was very beautiful and very well maintained.”
The mayor did not immediately say yes to the idea as she was aware that taking part in the competition (especially winning) can be a double-edged sword.
She consulted local residents and shopkeepers, and spoke to leaders in other villages that had been part of the competition in previous years.
She said: “Some of the feedback was very positive, others more mixed. We eventually decided to go for it.”
Tourism, overwhelm: Pros and cons of winning
Some, including Sylvie Heibi, mayor of the 650-inhabitant Hunspach in Bas-Rhin (2020 winner), said that the experience was positive.
She said: “We were sure that we would be among the finalists. [But] it was a great surprise and a source of joy for everyone [when we actually won].”
She did admit that winning the contest caused tourists to pour in, despite the village only having one restaurant and one bakery and tea shop at the time.
She said: “The day after the show, at eight o'clock in the morning, the streets were already filling up. We had to reorganise everything. Everyone got involved.
“With the village associations, we created outdoor car parks in the fields, and we offered catering services in the barns. We also had to invest in public toilets and picnic tables.”
The village is now one of the must-see places on Alsace traveller itineraries.
And while the mayor of Eguisheim (2013 winner) said that it was “very flattering” to have been contacted by the production company and have taken part and won, it later led to problems when the 1,700-inhabitant village became overwhelmed with visitors.
Claude Centlivre said: “The day after the programme was broadcast, we were totally overrun. We saw a tidal wave of unruly tourists parking anywhere, in front of houses, shops... It was impossible to accommodate them with our car park, which had 50 spaces, and our tourist office, which had barely 30 square metres.”
Before the TV programme, the village usually received 300,000 visitors per year on average, and after, that rose to 800,000. And while residents complained to the mayor, he had to admit that this new popularity had brought benefits too.
He said: “It’s no doubt because of this that we still have a doctor’s surgery, a physiotherapist clinic, a pharmacy, a post office, and many shops in the village.”
In contrast, the 2017 winner, Kaysersberg, was already a tourist destination prior to winning the show, and said that in reality, many of the tourists who come because of the programme do not genuinely contribute to tourism in the local area.
The mayor, Martine Schwartz, said: “Many of those who watched the show just come to Kaysersberg to see in real life what they saw on TV and to have their photo taken in front of the plaque.
“They’re passing visitors who don’t stay, and don’t take advantage of all the tourist activities offered in Alsace, such as wine tourism or green tourism.”
She explained that it was important to reconcile tourism with the “preservation of the living environment of people living in the village”.
She said: “The baker must still be able to bake bread for the inhabitants, and not just [traditional] kouglofs [Alsatian brioche] for passing tourists.”
Ms Schwartz was not the mayor of the village when it won in 2017, but she said that if she had a chance to be featured on the programme again, she might think twice, and recommended that others consider the possibly-unwanted effects of winning.
She said: “Faced with this kind of project, before embarking on the adventure, we must ask ourselves if the village really wants to increase its tourist numbers, for what purpose, and if it has sufficient infrastructure to achieve this.”