French town gets boost from new tourism association

A tourist association that helps boost the local economy has been set up by a British man who spends half the year living in France. 

Donough O’Brien said the initiative has been successful, benefiting both Saint Hippolyte-du-Fort in the Gard and the association members, who enjoy the challenge of putting their town on the tourist map.

“It’s made it much more fun living here,” said Mr O’Brien, who thinks it is an idea which might work well for other places in France.

Action Tourisme began when Mr O’Brien and his wife Liz discovered that Saint Hippolyte-du-Fort has an interesting history.

“It had a military prep school in the 1930s but nobody seemed to know anything about it,” he said.

The first step was to persuade the mayor, Bruno Olivieri, and then people in the town of its advantages.

“Together with a local Spanish friend, Carmen Ouari, we interviewed 23 prominent locals and then surveyed 50 local businesses,” said Mr O’Brien.

“The answers showed that 23% regarded tourists as ‘vital for their business’ and 60% ‘fairly important’. So we created Action Tourisme and recruited and meet six times a year.”

The first project was to create a circuit of the town with 18 signs marking interesting sites in four languages – French, English, Dutch and German – with a picture and a map.

A tourist consults a panel set up by Action Tourisme in Saint Hippolyte

This was coupled with a leaflet, available in many establishments.

“This was an immediate success and even taught many of the residents much they did not know,” said Mr O’Brien.

Next they called in a good friend, prominent botanist Dr John Akeroyd, who, with Prince Charles, had done much to boost Romania’s fame as a wildflower paradise.

“On holiday, John discovered a wealth of plants and flowers of interest around Saint Hippolyte,” said Mr O’Brien.

“This resulted in him leading week-long botanical tours, involving a dozen enthusiasts.

“While they stayed in the local hotel, we made sure they ate in other restaurants, spreading the benefits.” There have been three British tours and two French ones, and more are planned.

A painting holiday was organised last September and Swedish members of Action Tourisme run walking tours, also following the pattern of visiting historical sites such as the town’s well-known Silk Museum.

Member Pascal Coularou runs the local bookshop and his grand-father created mini Farnborough-type air shows.

His club Aéro des Garrigues has built a replica of Blériot’s plane, which was the first to cross the Channel.

It is taken to shows all over France and Belgium.

Action Tourisme took it to the Shuttleworth Collection in England in 2016 and again in 2018, accompanied by a brochure in French and English extolling Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort’s 100 years of aviation history and the local tourist attractions.

“Members keep coming forward with new ideas”, said Mr O’Brien. “All of which require a lot of enthusiasm and unpaid hard work.

“But such an association of enthusiasts can be truly satisfying and might well work for other places in France looking to boost the local economy by increasing tourism.”

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