Faced with too many tourists, France’s natural sites push back

Visitors stand atop the Étretat cliffs in Normandy on November 7, 2021. © AFP (Archive)

Several of France’s heavily visited natural sites are sounding the alarm. Access to some of the Calanques coves in Marseille and Corsica is now limited in order to limit erosion. Other villages struggling with mass tourism, such as Étretat in Normandy, are rethinking how they handle the influx of visitors.

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Can the cliffs of Étretat in Normandy really handle their million visitors every year? As France heads into the high season of summer holidays, Shaï-Hannah Mallet-Bitton, an activist with the Étretat Demain association, is preoccupied with this question. “Every year it gets worse, and it’s happening more quickly. I’m only 28 years old and even I can see how much the site has been degraded,” sighs the lawyer, who spent part of her childhood in this village of 1,400 inhabitants in Normandy.

The signs of overtourism are everywhere: overflowing rubbish bins, hollowed-out hiking trails from so much foot traffic, more-frequent landslides, up to 400 kg of pebbles a day carried away from the beaches. Jean-Baptiste Renié, an Étretat city councillor, is concerned that the area’s wastewater treatment facility is being pushed too far, as it was “not developed to handle the 5 to 6,000 visitors a day on top of the local population”. The system had to be closed for maintenance last year “due to overuse”.  

“After every big weekend, once all the tourists have left, the town is extremely dirty. When you visit the cliffs, you see papers everywhere, masks, cigarette butts”, says Shaï-Hanah Mallet-Bitton.

Volunteers from the Étretat Demain association clean cigarette butts from the beaches.

“We need tourism but a balance needs to be found. The tourists themselves would benefit the most. Many of them leave angry after having spent several hours in the car without being able to find parking, some place to eat, or toilets, because there isn’t enough infrastructure. This mass tourism satisfies nobody.”

“Healthy” regulation

Due to an excessive number of visitors, several French natural sites have gone so far as to impose obligatory timeslot reservations for tourists. Marseille’s Calanques National Park now limits the number of people who can visit the Sugiton and Pierres Tombées calanques to 400 a day. Both sites have been made more fragile due to ground erosion from the foot traffic of several thousand summer visitors previously. Three of Corsica’s top tourist sites (the Lavezzi islands, the Bavella Needles mountain ridge and the Restonica valley) also instituted daily quotas starting in July.

For Julien Buot, director of the association Agir Pour un Tourisme Responsible (“Act for Responsible Tourism”), which brings together ecologically aware travel operators, this new trend towards regulation is “healthy”. “There is growing awareness among local elected officials and tourism operators at all levels that we cannot wait until things get worse. The idea is to handle the situation early enough to prevent having to close the sites entirely.” He points to new ways of managing tourism traffic, such as how the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region has partnered with the Waze navigation app to suggest users return to the busiest sites at later hours. This initiative has also been adopted by Normandy’s Mont-Saint-Michel, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its abbey alone recorded 608,421 visitors in 2021. Waze indicates when the island is full to capacity and lists notable tourist attractions from the surrounding area.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of the French have set aside the idea of vacationing in foreign destinations in favour of French sites. “Some people decided to improvise as ‘wild adventurers’ out in nature, but they weren’t used to visiting natural areas and these sites weren’t prepared to host so many people,” says Julien Buot. Chartreuse Natural Park in the Alps, finding itself taken by storm, had to forbid bivouac camping last summer. “If too many hikers pitch their tents and light fires, this disturbs the natural environment – flora, fauna – and also the local inhabitants.”

Instagram overwhelms natural sites

Another recent phenomenon upending normal tourism patterns is Instagram. “Between the moment UNESCO listed a site and the moment tourists started to arrive en masse, there used to be a period of several years. We had time to prepare. Today, an ‘influencer’ can post a photo of a location from off the beaten track, and in a few weeks or even just a few days, the site will be visited by hundreds of people.”  

The Marseille Calanques

Volunteers from the Clean my Calanques group collect trash left behind by visitors.

The important role social media plays in overtourism is not a new idea for Shaï-Hanah Mallet-Bitton, who sees numerous tourists taking selfies from the edge of the Étretat cliff to create striking posts. “We’re going to have to think about roping off the trails, because a real security issue is being created.” Two women died this year after falling from the edge while posing for pictures.

Improving trails, reworking signage, increasing waste collection and upgrading to account for mass tourism comes with a cost that the community is struggling to cope with. For this reason, Jean-Baptiste Renié, the city councillor, is very happy that the Étretat cliff will soon be officially labelled a “Grand site of France”: “This will allow us to set the whole zone aside, obtain financing for its preservation and better manage the stream of tourists.”

This article was translated from the original in French.