The numbers are in—and despite the challenges to tourism after terrorist attacks in Paris (November 2015) and Nice (July 2016)—France has retained the title of world’s most visited destination with 83 million tourists in 2016. Rendez-vous en France, the country’s most important B2B trade show, was a testament to the industry’s renewed confidence in French tourism. Held in Rouen on March 28-29, the fair convened 892 tour operators from 67 countries and 740 French suppliers. On the horizon: a goal of 100 million visitors to France in 2020.
France is a key market for the U.S. travel industry. Of the 52 American tour operators in attendance, there was a diverse mix including Eurobound, Avanti Destinations, Jet Vacations, Witte Travel & Tours, Chocolatine, and specialty golf-focused businesses like Premier Golf, LLC and Golf & Adventure Travel Expeditions. “With the Ryder Cup held in France next year, it will be both the first time the competition takes place in continental Europe, and also the first time it’s staged near a major capital,” Anne Laure Tuncer, Director of Atout France US, told Luxury Travel Advisor. “We have fantastic golf courses designed by the game’s legends, but France isn’t yet perceived as a golf destination.”
Moreover, for the first time this year, the American TO delegation also comprised cruise lines Celebrity and Crystal, working on developing new experiences and shore excursions to offer passengers. Cruise travel is an increasingly important sector for France; a recent analysis by Atout France of passenger numbers in 95 ports of call revealed 5.14 million stopover passenger arrivals in France and overseas territories (like Guadeloupe and Martinique). This is an increase of 16.2 percent from 2015.
The two-day Rendez-vous en France show, in which 22,000 business meetings take place, is indispensable for networking and finding new product inspiration. As France is such a richly diverse destination, the pre-show fam trips are also a wonderful means of introducing places that may not yet be on the radar. More than half of the trips took place in the show’s host region of Normandy. Eurobound’s Anne Dauché, who explored the Pyrenees and the pilgrimage site of Lourdes, specifically chose an off-the-beaten path itinerary to try something new and different.
The Allure of Normandy
As the host of Rendez-vous en France 2017, the medieval city of Rouen and the region of Normandy had their moment in the spotlight. The region pulled out all the stops for the gala soirée—starting with a private concert in the magnificent 13th century Abbatiale Saint-Ouen, from where the delegation paraded through the medieval streets, led by a troupe of street artists, taking in the picturesque half-timbered houses along with a dazzling sound and light show in front of the gothic cathedral. Famous all over the world, the Rouen cathedral is where Claude Monet painted a series of Impressionist canvases to illustrate the changing light at different times of day. The welcome reception concluded at the Place du Vieux Marché, the historic square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Here, the local restaurants served a multi-course meal showcasing Normandy’s rich cuisine and specialty products like Calvados and Camembert cheese. (One of these establishments, La Couronne, is where Julia Child ate her first-ever meal in France.)
Situated on the Seine river just an hour from Paris, Rouen is often referred to as “the port of Paris.” This is a stop for many Seine river cruises, and indeed CroisiEurope was present at Rendez-vous en France this year; a few CroisiEurope ships provided additional accommodations for attendees.
“With the D-Day landing beaches, Mont St Michel, and Impressionist sites like Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, Normandy is a popular place for Americans,” affirmed Anne-Laure Tuncer.
Show Highlights: What’s New in France in 2017
France has a long history of support for the arts, and now it’s doubling down on promoting itself as a cultural destination. Case in point: For the first time, the Ministry of Culture, the Paris region, and the city of Paris have come together to work on an initiative centered around the Cultural Season 2017. They pulled out all the stops to launch the Saison Culturelle 2017 with a glamorous ceremony at the Opera Garnier on March 20. The evening showcased highlights from the upcoming season: music concerts, dance and theatre, film, fashion, plus major art exhibitions like Vermeer at the Louvre and Rodin at the Grand Palais. A slew of major cultural venues have opened in the city (like the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the Grand Musée du Parfum, the Paris Philarmonic), and soon there will be even more: the Seine Musicale (2017) and the Collection Pinault in the former stock exchange (2018).
Also a focus in the City of Light: Paris stores are now authorized to open on Sundays. Iconic department stores like Galeries Lafayette are working hard to promote Paris as a world shopping capital on par with London.
The Paris hotel scene continues to sizzle with red-hot openings like the Nolinski Paris, the renovated Ritz, and coming soon: the Lutetia and the Crillon.
In the south, the Côte d’Azur is launching its first-ever Garden Festival (April 1- May 1, 2017) as a means of showcasing and valorizing its heritage.
In Normandy, the port city of Le Havre will be celebrating its 500th anniversary this year with a big-budget artistic event called “Un Été au Havre” (“A summer in Le Havre”). To coincide with the event, there will be a record number of cruise ship calls (nearly 150). Chief among these is Cunard’s iconic Queen Mary 2, which has organized a special transatlantic crossing from Le Havre to New York on September 14.
In Picardy, the Franco-American Museum of Blérancourt will reopen in June after an expansion project. Dedicated to the centuries-long Franco-American relationship, the museum was founded by philanthropist Anne Morgan who led an important WWI war effort from the Château de Blérancourt, which she transformed into a museum and donated to the government in 1931.
Bordeaux continues to ride a tourism wave, basking in the spotlight after lots of American media attention following the launch of the Cité du Vin (wine museum) last year. Among American travelers, Anne-Laure Tuncer told Luxury Travel Advisor, there’s been a lot of love for “second cities” like Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux. This boom is also thanks to river cruising, and the fact that millennials are seeking out alternative destinations.
In 2016, American tourism numbers (3.4 million) declined by less than three percent. (The post terrorist-attack decline in tourism is largely attributed to the Asian market.) Figures from the ARC (Airline Reporting Corporation) indicate that American flight bookings are up 20% in Q1 2017 over the previous year.
The most popular French regions for Americans are Paris, Provence/Riviera, the Rhone-Alpes and Normandy. Martinique and Guadeloupe are also seeing an increase in American tourists, partly as a result of Norwegian Air’s direct flights from the East Coast.
French regions organize missions with Atout France USA to send delegations of industry professionals to meet with the travel trade and the press. This year, these include Paris, Cote d’Azur, Provence, Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes, and Alsace. For the first time, Brittany has also allocated a budget to target the American market. An important States-side event for the travel trade community is the popular French Affairs Workshop, which convenes an average of 70 American tour operators. This year’s event will be held in Los Angeles.