French Government Urges Hospitality

A waiter and customers in Lorraine, France. Photo: Neil Moralee via Flickr

A waiter and customers in Lorraine, France. Photo: Neil Moralee via Flickr

When it comes to tourism, France enjoys a reputation for elegance in its arts and architecture, finesse in its cuisine, and romance in its streets. This reputation attracts millions of travelers to the City of Love and to the French countryside. Unfortunately, France does not enjoy a reputation for hospitality.

Neighboring countries often comically mock the ‘rudeness’ of the French. The common expectation seems to be: when travelling in France, don’t expect people to be nice.

When hordes of tourists swarm the country’s popular destinations, a bit of surliness from the locals is to be expected. However, the level of rudeness has recently climbed to such alarming levels that even the French government has tuned in, rolling out a plan to encourage its citizens to become better hosts.

Speaking at a national conference, Commerce Minister Fleur Pellerin said France needs, “to recover a sense of hospitality.”

Currently France attracts more tourists than any other country in the world. According to the UN’s world tourism organization, 83 million people visited in 2012. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said the government aims to raise that number to 100 million.

However, the country’s reputation for surliness and rudeness, particularly in the nation’s capital, might prove to be a roadblock to this goal. In surveys among popular destinations, Paris often comes in last for hospitality and good service. Tourists on TripAdvisor also voted Paris the rudest city in Europe. The most common complaints include unfriendly locals and hostile waiters.

Some think that hostility is unique to Parisians. Others go further, claiming that this hostility afflicts locals as fiercely as it does tourists.

“I think waiters are not only rude to tourists. They’re rude to everyone,” said Celestine Dahan, a French graduate living in Paris. She goes on, “As a result, I’m always trying to be as nice and helpful to tourists as possible … I don’t really care about what they think about waiters as long as they keep in mind a good image of ‘real people’ on the street.”

More than 7 percent of France’s national income comes from the tourism industry. It creates 2 million jobs and contributes 12 billion euros per year, according to the Financial Times. Blessed with beautiful beaches, the Alps, and many historical sites, it seems the French take tourism for granted. However, with global tourism projected to grow by 1 billion people by 2030, it is little wonder that the French government is anxious to capture this potential growth early on.

Pellerin explained that the issue was very serious, “Tourism is not an amusing or a secondary matter … the stakes are the same as exports.”

Not everyone who comes to France leaves disappointed. Emma Holmes, an Australian travelling alone through Europe, had only positive things to say about her encounters with locals during a visit to Paris. Holmes explained, “They were lovely! Several people went out of their way to give me directions – one actually drew me a map to take with me.” The good news is that the French are not scaring away every tourist that appears on the doorstep.

Alexis Belluet, a student currently studying in Paris, agreed that there is a difference between Parisians and people in the rest of France, “I would say we aren’t rude but Parisians are.” He went on to explain what evokes the frosty attitude towards tourists in the capital, “As we are proud of our language, is there some despise for those who don’t speak any single word of French? Undoubtedly there is!”

There seems to be a misunderstanding between tourists and locals. Tourists arrive expecting everyone to speak English. Locals expect tourists to extend them the courtesy of at least trying to speak French. Even “Bonjour!” might go a long way.

While unveiling the new plan to tackle these issues, Pellerin admitted that hospitality is not something that can be fixed instantaneously, saying, “It is a big issue, covering language and also friendliness. We need to work on it via training and building the self-esteem of people who work with tourists.”

Last year the Paris Tourist Board issued a “politeness manual” to service industry workers. It was one of several desperate attempts by the city to get citizens to lighten up.

To boost the number of visitors, the government now plans to make visas easier to acquire. In 2017, Paris will start building an express link from Charles de Gaulle airport to the city center. Fabius also said he intends to classify more areas in Paris as tourist zones in order to allow shops and restaurants to stay open on Sundays. “A tourist who finds a shop closed on Sunday, will not wait until Thursday,” Fabius explained.

Plans also include initiatives to fight crime, which targets tourists in Paris. Recently, Chinese tourists in particular have been victims of several well-publicized attacks. Last March, 23 Chinese tourists were robbed at a restaurant. This has set an uneasy tone in China, as Paris is increasingly seen as a dangerous destination for travelers. France will need to shed this image if it wants to continue attracting millions of wealthy Chinese travelers, who crowd Paris’ Boulevard Haussman and spend hefty sums stocking up on luxury goods.

In light of a stagnant economy, high unemployment, and London’s claim to have unseated Paris as the world’s top destination for tourists, the French government has committed to maintaining its high status among tourists as a vital mission to economic security. One question remains: will this be enough to persuade French citizens to become more welcoming hosts?

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