Responsible tourism in France

With joie de vivre at the heart of French culture it is hard to imagine there are some responsible tourism issues, but there are always ways in which we can be better visitors. And ways for the tourism industry to improve too. The debate around second home ownership by British people is still ongoing, and who knows which way that will go? Also, anyone who has visited during hunting season, will have heard the early morning sound  of guns in rural areas. The legal lines surrounding hunting have become blurred because French farmers shouted loudly until they were given permission to use their guns again, which has rightly riled conservationists – it seems there are a lot of raised voices in France, but not much being listened to. Still, measures are at least being made to preserve silence in the mountains, where it is at its most golden, but being responsible in the mountains is a huge concern for many. Especially with the impact of snow cannons and so on.  

People & Culture

Second homes: the British invasion

The heady days of buying a second home abroad using equity released from soaring UK house values may be long gone, but France is still the favourite destination for those that are still buying overseas – from the Dordogne down the weather is far more clement than the bluster of Britain and property prices are more stable than struggling neighbour, Spain. While Brits (and other ‘non-residents’, but mainly Brits…) searching for a peaceful pied a terre may seem like a light-hearted topic, it’s actually a persistent bone of contention in France.

On the one hand, the invasion of vacation home seekers in France has been blamed for making some of its most quaint villages ‘seasonal’ and half-empty for much of the year, as well as forcing prices too high for the pockets of French locals. On the other, second-home owners have been lauded for contributing to activity in rural districts with lower populations where agriculture had been previously in decline, as well as preventing rural-urban migration among young French employed to work at rehabilitated B&Bs.

The plot has been made even thicker by the decision to slap steep ‘social charges’ on British and other ‘non-resident’ second home owners in France, which has been declared ‘unconventional’ and even ‘illegal’ by those in opposition – for second home owners who had owned their owned their property for less than 22 years, the capital gains tax on property sales hiked up from 19% to a whopping 34.5% in order to remove ‘an unjustified tax advantage’ and make things fairer between the resident French and the non-resident A. N Others. The reasons that make this murkier still are twofold: firstly, ‘fair’ is probably the last word any would apply to Hollande’s tax ‘reforms’, and secondly, it’s a tax, not a ‘social charge’ because foreigners can rightly claim that they don’t gain from as many social benefits as the French.
What can you do?
Both sides of the second home coin have argument in their favour. There are over 2 million empty homes in France and a relevant point may be that someone who lives there three times a year is better than no one at all, but it’s likely the key lies in the owners using their properties responsibly – if you have a second home in France, or are thinking about getting one, spend your money locally when there and employ local staff wherever relevant. Having said that, an invasion every summer and Easter does not a consistent community make and will likely serve to tear apart the social and cultural makeup of a place as well and push up property prices causing resentment from local people. Get the locals on your side and work out what your place will be in that society before you take the plunge.

Wildlife & environment

Wolves vs. farmers

The French happily hunted wolves to extinction back in the 30s, but in 1992 a sneaky alpha mating pair crossed the border from Italy and since then wolves have got their own back. Today there are a minimum of 300 individual wolves in around 25 packs spread throughout the French Alps, across the Rhone Valley into Massif Central and up the country’s eastern border, and under the Berne Convention and European Law, the wolf is a protected species and can no longer be hunted or poisoned.

Until now… due to a rise in wolf attacks on farm animals and much protest from farmers across France, the government has passed a ‘wolf plan’ under which 24 wolves can be legally ‘removed’ annually. The role that began as an official culling job for states marksmen however has now been extended to ‘wolf lieutenants’ too and today wolves can be shot in ordinary hunts, or in areas where they can be ‘seen to pose a problem’ – a subjective opinion and one that has conservation groups who view a return to wolf hunts as archaic and scandalous up in arms.
Controversial further still is the smoke screen that conveniently blurs the facts on bear hunting in France. In 2004, hunters shot dead the last brown bear native to the Pyrenees, condemning the species to extinction and causing what the French government called ‘an environmental catastrophe’. Since then, 22 brown bears from Slovenia have been reintroduced to the Pyrenees as part of an official programme in a move that also ups the status of the mountain range as one of the last great strongholds of the European brown bear in southern Europe. Farmers have long countered that the bears are unwelcome and kill their livestock and hunters have shot several brown bears, allegedly by mistake, though if a practiced hunter accidentally shoots an enormous endangered brown bear perhaps said hunter shouldn’t be handling a gun.
Throughout history wolves have had a reputation for killing on an almost mythical level, but French public opinion is very much on the wolf’s side with a 2014 poll concluding that 80 percent of French people wanted wolves to be protected from farmers, rather than sheep from wolves. France should also be given credit for trying to act with ethical guidelines to address the problem – even if you agree with the practice of culling as a whole – and the implementation of special fencing, similar to electric fencing, that has proved effective in reducing both livestock predation and reducing angry retaliation from farmers.
What can you do?
Don’t hunt, and definitely don’t tell a hunter if you see a brown bear. Apart from that, you’re best bet is to support any tourist initiatives that center on either seeing wild animals in their natural environments, or keeping them happy there.

Be quiet and watch your waste!

It is not just the slopes, forests and precious alpine tundra that needs protecting around France’s beautiful mountain regions, it is also the air. And the ambience. Mountain Wilderness, a mountain conservation organisation created in Biella, Italy, in 1987, leads important campaigns to protect wild mountain places. They define these as “any untouched mountain environment where anyone who so wishes may come into direct contact with the wide-open spaces, experience solitude, silence, rhythms, natural dimensions, laws and dangers.”

The most recent campaign is ‘Silence’, launched in October 2014, whereby climbers ascended to a height of 3,400m at the Col du Geant, Mont Blanc, and created an installation using plastic bags laid out in giant letters which read ‘Silence!’ This is aimed at the growing number of privately chartered tourists planes and helicopters, which are currently destroying this rare natural gift of silence on Europe’s highest mountain. Many of these flights are offered as ‘prizes’ to skiers by ski resorts, as incentives to book with them for the season. There is now rarely a moment of total silence, without hearing tourist propellers, echoes and engines overhead.
Frédi Meignan, President Mountain Wilderness France: “Silence has become such a rare commodity, because wherever we live today there is always noise. And here we are in one of the few territories where there is no noise at all. Not one noise. It is so quiet you can even here the silence. I believe that such a rare and beautiful territory deserves a minimum of respect, and respecting Mont Blanc is respecting its silence“
Waste is always an issue in France’s trekking regions, so it is always worth reminding yourself of the Leave No Trace principles before you go. This organisation is the font of all knowledge and training when it comes to environmental protection and outdoor activities. It all seems like common sense and, in general, walkers love the environment and are extremely protective of it. However, this doesn’t explain the wasters who leave things behind like disposable barbeques, cigarette butts, banana skins, chewing gum, drinks bottles and even pop up tents. Leave no trace also means leaving nature as you find it, so don’t pick wildflowers please.

Let’s not beat about the bush, the waste issue also relates to human waste. Bring bags with you, and take your faeces away. The two highest toilets in Europe are to be found on Mont Blanc. They are serviced by helicopter in order to deal with the amount of human waste, which spreads down the mountain, calling it a ‘Mont Noir’ when the snow melts. Eugh.

What you can do
Avoid the temptation of traveling over France’s beautiful mountain regions by plane or helicopter, even if the views are spectacular. And support the invaluable work of Mountain Wilderness by following their projects on social media/blogs and so on. Before you squat, think about the unpleasant sight of shite left behind - local people have to clear it up along with all the other rubbish that shouldn’t be there. Shovel it and shift it.

Responsible tourism tips

There are now police at certain stages of the Mont Blanc ascent, due to irresponsible and ill-prepared climbing practices on some people’s parts. This is always a divisive issue – how much do we police the mountains in order to stop the one or two disrespectful hikers? Most people believe that the mountains should be about freedom and tranquility, not over-regulation. So if every climber, hiker and mountaineer acts responsibility, there will be no such need for reigning in. Wild camping is not permitted at high altitude anywhere in France, and sleeping is only allowed in the mountain refuges, so it’s safer to stay put. You aren’t allowed to build fires either. It is very important to stay on the allocated paths up in the mountains unless your guide says otherwise, and this applies particularly to mountain bikers, who are increasingly guilty of going off piste. It is a growing tourism sector, and so it is very important that you check if you are on a pathway where mountain bikes are allowed in the first place, and then to stick to the path and not go like a bat out of hell through untrampled nature. When trekking, lessen your environmental footprint on habitats and ecosystems and walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy. A responsible walker is an insured walker. Accidents do happen, even if it’s just a badly sprained ankle, and you might need to be rescued. So make sure you are properly insured, even though you might feel more ‘covered’ because you are in Europe. When greeting a French person that you don’t know, shake hands and say ‘bonjour’; a kiss on both cheeks is reserved for acquaintances and friends. In churches or anywhere with religious significance, it’s important to dress modestly making sure that your shoulders are covered. At French restaurants, a 15 percent service charge is usually added to the bill, but it’s standard to leave a few euros too – ‘service non compris’ means service hasn’t been included. The only acceptable way to end a meal in France is ‘un café’, an espresso – order a skinny latte and they’ll laugh you out of town.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: Hervé] [Hunters: john shortland] [Property in France: Manoir de la Boirie] [Wolves: Lucy Kitsunè Mj]