JAPANESE travel agents have voted Riquewihr in Alsace as their perfect vision of France with their vice-president saying it had 'guarded tradition, but also ramparts and vineyards'.
The Jata travel agents’ federation rated it and Saint-Cirq Lapopie, in Lot, as their “preferred villages” in France - decisions that could have an enormous impact on both places.
is already visited by more than two million people a year – 350,000 for its Christmas market alone – and Saint-Cirq welcomes 600,000, but Japanese visitors are said to be tourism’s highest-spenders.
Jungo Kikuma, of Jata, said they loved Riquewihr’s preserved heritage as little had changed in parts of the town since the 16th century. “From the point of view of tourism, Riquewihr has all the important elements, it’s perfect,” he said.
Saint-Cirq has already been lauded as it is on the official list of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, a prestigious label given to 151 villages in mainland France and two in Corsica.
However, the number of Japanese tourists visiting France has dropped markedly, with 50% fewer visiting Paris and 20% fewer in Alsace since 2014. The November 13 terror attacks have led to a further fall in numbers.
Now Jata, French tourist promotion agency Atout France and Paris city have joined forces to relaunch Japanese tourism.
Atout France head Christian Mantei said: “France shares strong ties with Japan. We want to reaffirm to Japanese tourists that France is still the country they know and love.”
Jean-François Martins, the Paris mayor’s assistant for tourism, said: “We are organising a trip to Japan with mayor Anne Hidalgo and Ile-de-France region president Valérie Pécresse to get Japanese confidence back. We will meet the mayor of Tokyo, talk to the Japanese press and meet the main travel agencies.”
“I am confident that Japanese tourists will come back shortly.”
The Japanese are not alone in having fondness for certain parts of France and their affection for Riquewihr and Saint-Cirq Lapopie is matched by Americans’ love for Provençal villages such as Lourmarin and Les Baux-de-Provence or La Roque-Gageac in Dordogne and La Bastide Clairence in the Pays Basque.
Similarly, many Australians have fallen under the spell of Monpazier, a 13th-century bastide town in Dordogne built by English king Edward I. National differences come out elsewhere as Americans love to visit big cities but want to be transported by bus, whereas German and Dutch tourists prefer seeing the countryside through activities like visiting gardens, walks and hiking.
Sandra Ho Tham Kouie, who has worked for two decades with US and Australian tourists at the travel agency France’s Impressions, said Monpazier showed how word of mouth had a great impact on how visitors rated a village.
She said the 'number of tourists has not dropped despite a couple of school trips being cancelled' but added: “From now on we know we have to live with a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads”.
France is the world’s most visited country with 83.8million tourists in 2014 and 1.4million linked jobs. But as well as bringing in tourists it is also exporting some great ideas, such as the Plus Beaux Villages scheme that features Saint-Cirq. The initiative has prompted copycat schemes in Europe and as far away as Canada, Korea and Romania.
Villages involved have fewer than 2,000 residents, have two or more protected sites and must have full council support.
They are also rated on heritage, architectural, urban planning and environmental criteria.
French TV viewers can also vote for their No1 village in the Village Préféré des Français on France 2. They went for SaintCirq-Lapopie in the first show in 2012, followed by Eguisheim, Haut-Rhin; Cordes-sur-Ciel, Tarn; and then Ploumanac’h, Côtes d’Armor, last year.