You are currently viewing Tourism in France from its genesis to the post-war period

Tourism in France from its genesis to the post-war period

In a world of tourism where the advent of digital has profoundly changed the situation, globalized the offer or accentuated the divide between destinations and their territorial policies. Tourism players have seen their jobs change too. Their destinations have become brands and marketing departments have arrived to manage them as products.

That’s in an ideal world where there are no intermediate measures…

The reality is that the change is taking place but it is also accentuating the divide between the different territories, those who have taken advantage of the digital wave to completely review their approach to tourism and those who are still waiting, not necessarily knowing how to attack the problem. Tourism is a multidisciplinary and complex field of activity, its transversality of action makes it a complex whole to understand and manage.

Close to and dependent on local governance, tourism tends to be easily apprehended through the personal experience of an elected official or a territorial civil servant who, if I may allow myself the parallel with events, sees in organization made for the school penny fair, the same work as for a music festival welcoming artists of international stature.

However, the tools and techniques evolve with the world and the technicians in the field of Tourism have weapons that allow them to offer the customer assets and an exacerbated knowledge of their territory.

In short, everything is there to make Tourism a field of innovation and cutting-edge in terms of today’s marketing. But local governance systems do not have the same responsiveness as destination customers and are still struggling to move in the direction of the latter or to take them into consideration. Yet it is these same governances that own their destination brands.

So we have to ask ourselves how did we get here? What makes tourism at this stage today. The history of Tourism is vast and allows us to understand many things, in particular the fact that it was not born in 1963-64 with the Snow and Coastal plans in France.

No alt text for this image

Since antiquity, peoples have been on the move. Communication routes developed over the centuries; between military or liturgical traces, there are many roads so that everyone can move in a world that is only getting closer.

The World Tourism Organization defines Tourism: “Tourism is a social, cultural and economic phenomenon that involves the movement of people to countries or places outside their usual environment for personal or professional purposes or for business. » [1] . These emotionless words are a good scientific definition of tourist activity but, like Marc Boyer, we will rather retain that of tourism by Emile Littré in 1873: “Travellers who do not travel through foreign countries only out of curiosity and idleness, who make a sort of tour of countries usually visited by their compatriots. It is said above all of English travelers in France, Switzerland and Italy [2] ”. This word which takes root in the English “Grand Tour of Europe”, itself inherited from the French “Tour”, a journey with a notion of circular or circuit, i.e. several stages.

Generalized by the English aristocracy during the 17th century, tourism was intended to introduce the world to this English youth who generally left for Germany or Italy to do their “Grand Tour of Europe” and each time, they had to cross France, worse still cross the Alps[3] .

No alt text for this image

Even if the first traces of crossing the Alps are numerous, history will remember especially those of Hannibal during the second Punic war which, in 218 BC, goes up from Spain quickly towards Italy by crossing the Pyrenees and the Alps. to invade the Romans. Weaker on the maritime terrain than the army of Rome, Hannibal decided to go by land and pass the Alpine passes with some 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry and 37 war elephants [4] . It is therefore by the Col du Montcenis or by that of Montgenèvre that he opened a way of communication not without losing between 3,000 and 20,000 men during the crossing [5] . These paths will then be generalized in many trips to cross the Alps over the centuries even if the Alps will not be tamed until the 18th century.

It was not until 1740 that these passages of “Grand Tour” become “Tourists” become widespread after a century of Enlightenment filled with romantic adjectives. New travel themes are multiplying in which the mountain takes an increasingly important place. These “Horrible Mountains” take on their full importance from the stories of Windham and Pockoke in 1741 and the invention of the myth of Mont Blanc, hitherto painted from afar by the romantics of the time. The seaside resorts and their long walks facing the seas at high tide also play a major role in growing tourism. Only the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea are neglected in these new tourist practices.

But from the last third of the 18th century, British medicine quickly sold the merits of the southern winter. In Nice and Hyères, rich Europeans relax from October to April for health needs. It was in the 19th century that the Mediterranean coast took off with the development of new cities such as Cannes, Menton, Grasse or San Remo, which the English quickly called the French Riviera, equivalent to the Côte d’Azur in French. This name comes from the author Stephen Liégeard in 1887. Especially since part of this coast becomes French after the attachment of the Duchy of Savoy to France. In the South-West, it will also be the time of the advent of Pau and Arcachon, from Algiers to eastern Egypt via Estoril or Madeira.

The rise of tourism will no longer be stopped and the universal exhibitions will allow the 19th century to pass from elite tourism to real mass tourism which will consecrate London and Paris as the most visited cities in the world.

No alt text for this image

As for winter sports, they were truly born with the Army. The politico-military context specific to the end of the 19th century convinced the government of the Third Republic that our borders had to be protected. Thus the comparative experiments between snowshoes and skis for the movement of Alpine troops are the subject of a detailed report by Captain Clerc (1902) in which he demonstrates all the interest there would be in equipped with skis like the Alpini of Colonel Zavarotti (Ballu, 1981-1988). “The snow bicycle” first established itself as an instrument for exploring a mountain that had hitherto been hostile in winter and as a patriotic weapon for the defense of the steepest borders. The Ministry of War then supported the idea of creating a military ski school in Briançon. The Ski School of the 159th made a major contribution, from 1904, to the propagation of skiing and the manufacture of equipment, while benefiting from the active support of the Club Alpin Français and the advice of some Norwegian military instructors. The effort of the military and the “Mountaineers” resulted in the organization of the first international winter sports competition at Montgenèvre from February 10 to 12, 1907, in front of a considerable crowd (more than 3000 people, whereas at the time Briançon has barely 6,000 inhabitants). [6]

Seventeen years before the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, Montgenèvre will therefore be the first French ski resort [7] .

In less than two centuries, the great historical European tourist sites were then drawn, only the Second World War would slow down the development of Tourism – although Pierre Montaz, in “11 Americans who fell from the sky”, describes his work in the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez for German officers[8] – and will mark an important stage between traditional tourism and the new mass tourism that we know today.

No alt text for this image


[1] UNWTO – Understanding Tourism: Basic Glossary – www.

[2] Émile Littré (1873), Dictionary of the French language

[3] BOYER, Marc. General history of tourism from the 16th to the 21st century. Editions L’Harmattan, 2005.

[4] Lancel 1995, p. 60.

[5] Richard Bedser, Hannibal V Rome , BBC and Atlantic Productions, London, 2005

[6] Arnaud Pierre. Olympism and winter sports: The fallout from the Chamonix 1924 Olympic Winter Games. In: Journal of Alpine Geography, volume 79, n°3, 1991.

[7] Guy Hermitte, Montgenèvre: A Century of Skiing History From 1907 to 2007

[8] Pierre Montaz, Eleven Americans who fell from the sky – 1994

Leave a Reply