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Rural France prepares for summer tourism post-Covid-19

Rural areas of France are preparing to welcome tourists over the summer, as their relatively low population density and open spaces make them ideal destinations as the country remains cautious over Covid-19.

Departments such as Creuse (Nouvelle-Aquitaine), Lozère (Occitanie) and Nièvre (‎Bourgogne-Franche-Comté) are expecting to be especially popular, a report by newspaper Le Figaro has said.

The preparations come as both President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe urge the public to restrict their holidays to France this summer, as deconfinement measures continue.

Read more: French PM: ‘Public can holiday in France’ this summer

Read more: Macron: ‘Too early to say’ if summer holidays possible

Lozère, in particular, is the least-densely-populated department in France, with 14.83 inhabitants per square kilometre, versus 20,755 in Paris.

Similarly, these departments were relatively less-affected by Covid-19: just one person has died of the virus in Lozère, and five in Creuse.

One director of the tourist office in Mende, Lozère, Cyril Duclot, told newspaper Le Figaro: “During confinement, visits to our Internet site exploded. It’s less risky to travel in a car and to sleep in a gîte in the middle of the countryside, than it is to take a plane and go to a hotel.”

Similarly, Sébastien Debarge, tourist office manager in Creuse - the second-least-populated department in mainland France - said: “For the past week, we have had many requests for information from people who do not normally make up our usual visitors.

“Everyone is telling us the same thing; we chose you because you are an area that has been relatively spared [of the worst] of the coronavirus.”

Creuse is also within four hours’ drive from major urban centres in France, meaning that it is accessible to many city residents, even with the 100km travel limit.

Mr Debarge, from Creuse, said: “During normal times, 90% of our clients come from the west of France, from Paris, or the Lyon area, for weekends or short stays. So with the deconfinement 100km rule. We are hoping to see our usual tourists and to attract new ones.

“Creuse is quintessentially countryside. It is traditional, but [also] has some urban centres and a good mix of services, with a very rich cultural and natural heritage.”

The chateau in Bourganeuf is one example of Creuse heritage (Photo: Mossot / CC BY-SA 3.0

Don’t fence me in...

Two months of confinement appears to have made the French public especially eager to seek escape, the department tourist offices said.

Mr Debarge said: “On social media, we are really seeing a huge interest for wide open spaces, after the frustration of confinement. And especially, the choice to be, or not, in areas with lots of people. [Creuse] has calm, beautiful landscapes, yes; and you can also enjoy it completely alone - or almost.”

The department of Nièvre is also known for its rich heritage, spread across distinct areas, including the Loire Valley, the wine areas of Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre, the Nivernais canal, and the Morvan natural park and lakes.

Stéphane Benedit, director of the department’s tourist office, said: “We are only 1h50 by road from Paris, so we are an excellent place to relax, whether for holidays - or just a weekend, for those who will not be able to take holidays this summer.”

The department’s new tourism slogan is “Essayez la Nièvre (Try Nièvre)”, which has been developed in tandem with the area’s mayors, and community presidents. It is aimed at Parisians, jobseekers, or people thinking of retiring soon, who may be seeking a different way of life.

Mr Benedit said: “We are inviting these people for a weekend, so they can discover the opportunities and benefits of our region. We have high-speed broadband, beautiful nature, and businesses starting back up.

The Morvan Regional Natural Park is mainly in the department of Nièvre (Photo: Urban / Public Domain)


Summertime success?

However, despite this spike in interest in rural France, it is not yet clear if this will translate into overall summertime success for the tourism industry.

Karim Soleilhavoup, general director of Logis Hôtels, a hotel network with 2,150 independent hotels across France, said: “Right now, we are not really seeing many conversions [sales].”

Mr Duclot, of the tourist office in Mende, Lozère, said: “We do not know if this will really turn into anything. So far, we have not had any bookings for summer.”

The commune has, however, had a number of enquiries about mushroom-themed stays for the autumn.

Yet, the departments are still preparing for a possible spike in visitors.

Mr Duclot added: “In Mende and our surroundings, the occupancy rate varies from 60-80%. So there is a good amount of margin for us to welcome extra tourists.”

Some areas, such as the Tarn gorges, could even see “some blockages”, as more tourists try to visit than there is capacity, he said.

The castle at Florac in Lozère, France. It now hosts the headquarters of the Cévennes National Park (Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Coping with coronavirus

The tourism office in Mende has done its own research into how to help local accommodation sites operate with good health practices in place as the country continues to live with Covid-19. 

Businesses that impose the best safety measures will be offered to tourists as a priority, Mr Duclot said.

Creuse - in which 40% of tourist accommodation is spread across furnished, self-catering homes; rentals and chambres d’hôtes - is also helping its tourism sector to introduce measures that will improve health and safety in the time of Covid-19.

Mr Debarge said: “Many restaurants, in [the town of] Guéret, and in the countryside, have introduced takeaway services. There has also been a strong rise in the farm shops and local producers, who are offering baskets of local produce via drive-throughs.”

Logis Hôtels has also signed a “health charter” for all of its members. This includes the use of masks and gloves by staff, with contactless payments preferred.

On-site restaurants will serve meals under cling film or cloches, and only via room service. The aim is to reassure guests without losing the “family” feel of many of these countryside hotels and B&Bs.

Mr Soleilhavoup, of Logis Hôtels, said: “Our sites are establishments that are located far from crowds, with clients who often know the owners personally, and who trust them.”

Sector shifts

Some within the industry believe that the pandemic will cause long-term changes in the way the tourist industry operates.

Mr Benedit, in Nièvre, said: “We have to stop thinking of tourism as a separate industry, and integrate it into overall planning. This crisis must be seen as a real opportunity to transform the sector in a sustainable way, and rethink our lifestyle, at the dawn of a new time for country life.” 

Similarly, Mr Soleilhavoup, of Logis Hôtels, also believes that there will be changes in tourism practices, making tourism more family-centred - as opposed to mass tourism - with people choosing family-owned, small accommodation in more local destinations.

He said: “The demand for authentic and rural experiences is already growing, but it will become more pronounced and more established after this crisis. I am certain.”

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