Memorial tourists head for France

Millions of visitors expected for anniversary commemorations of First World War and D-Day – but what is planned?

THIS year sees two major commemorative events in France: the 100-year anniversary of the start of the First World War - fought in large part in the north and north-east of the country - and the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy.
The areas affected have been preparing for these landmark anniversaries for some time and expect to see visitors flocking to the memorial sites. Connexion and AFP Relaxnews met Christian Mantei, the director of French tourism development agency Atout France, to find out what memorial tourism will mean for the country and its tourist businesses in the coming year.

Connexion: How do you define "memorial tourism?"
Christian Mantei: Memorial tourism proposes an experience of heritage sites that enhance the visitor's knowledge of the history and culture of a city, a region or a nation.

It has four main objectives: bear witness to the events of the past, which means preserving the markers, signs and vestiges of these events; explain these events and put them into perspective, allowing a more holistic understanding of the facts; encourage reflection on the part of future generations through appropriate, accessible and educational tools; and encourage the economic development of territories that often lack other major tourist attractions.

Is it really a way to better understand history?
Yes, this type of tourism truly enables one to learn about and understand history in a very concrete way ...

We can identify four types of sites:

Historical sites, which are places where significant events occurred (e.g., Omaha Beach, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane [site of a 1944 massacre], Chemin des Dames [site of several major WWI battles]);

Commemorative sites, which are places dedicated to paying respects and remembering (Notre-Dame-de-Lorette Necropolis in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, the Douaumont Ossuary (Verdun), Hartmannswillerkopf Memorial in Alsace, etc.);

Informative sites that approach history from a particular angle (Caen Memorial, the Museum of the Great War near Meaux, etc.);

Educational sites which go beyond a purely informative approach and seek to place the history within a wider, more educational approach, with an emphasis on identifying the consequences of the past on the present (International Peace Centre in Verdun).

In addition to experiencing the strong emotions some of these sites may elicit, visitors come away with an enhanced knowledge of history and other benefits on a more personal level.

Who visits these sites and areas?
In 2011, the departments of Somme, Calvados, Var, Meuse, Bas-Rhin and Haute-Vienne were surveyed by Atout France and the Ministry of Defence and the results showed that French nationals accounted for 55% of visitors and international visitors the remaining 45%.

Overall, 3.5 million visits were made by French tourists, and 75% of these were made to sites within four zones: eastern France (24%), the west (24%), Ile-de-France (18%) and the north (15%).

International tourists accounted for 2.7 million visits, and 70% of these tourists came from one of five countries: Great Britain (17%), Germany (16.5%), Belgium (15.5%), the Netherlands (13.2%) and the United States (8.1%).

The objectives are not exactly the same: while international visitors come mainly to pay their respects, French clients desire to be informed above all else.

Atout France has been working with the areas of Champagne-Ardenne, Lorraine, Nord-Pas de Calais, Aisne, Meuse, Somme and Vosges to prepare for the tourist influx for the First World War centenary commemorations. What are the latest developments on this?
The agreement aims to reinforce cooperation between the different regions, both to increase visibility overseas for French memorial sites and to better host visitors throughout the country.

In concrete terms, nearly €48 million will be invested by the involved parties to create new sites, expand or renovate existing ones, and make these sites more accessible.

In Nord Pas-de-Calais, these funds allowed for the renovation of the Museum of the Battle of Fromelles (reopening soon) and the inauguration on November 11, 2014 of the new International Memorial for soldiers who fell in the region during the First World War.

The funds also enabled the expansion of the Caverne du Dragon, the museum dedicated to the Chemin des Dames in the Aisne region and improved recognition for 12 First World War sites in the Vosges and Haut-Rhin regions, where hiking trails are being better promoted and "memory trails" and walks have been established.

Finally, the funds facilitated the application to Unesco for recognition of the entire Western Front as a World Heritage Site, seeking validation in 2016.

More than 1,000 events are being organised in France and abroad to commemorate the First World War centenary; to get more details, visit the official website:
© AFP/Connexion