France learns to speak 'touriste'

EIFFEL TOWER: France casually rides a reputation for stunning monuments.
EIFFEL TOWER: France casually rides a reputation for stunning monuments.

There are no garbage bins on the Champs-Elysees.

Paris' department stores, as well as shops and restaurants across the country, are closed on Sundays.

And pickpockets swarm the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.

France has long had a reputation - particularly in the English-speaking world - for being a bit difficult to visit. But more people visit France than any other country in the world.

Now, after years of casually riding a reputation for stunning monuments and world-class food, the French are starting to talk about tourism as an economic benefit - and one they need to do more to capitalise on.

This is a sea change in a country that has long prided itself on not doing anything as gauche as catering to visitors.

"The problem is that in France we don't value jobs in tourism," says Didier Arino, a director of the consultancy Protourisme. "We conflate services with servitude."

The numbers show that something is amiss.

With the draws of Paris, Alpine skiing and some of the ritziest Mediterranean resorts, France has been the most-visited country for every year there are statistics in the World Bank database, welcoming 83 million foreign tourists in 2012.

But it has never sat atop the list of places where visitors spend the most. There, it has been No.3, behind the US and Spain, for several years.

France's Socialist government has vowed to change this.

"I want to make France No. 1, period," Tourism Minister Sylvia Pinel told reporters last year as a new government took the reins and laid out its priorities.

Improving France's "welcome" was one of those - creating a true tourism policy for the first time, Pinel said.

Pinel wasn't shy in linking the cultural and commercial: She called tourism a lever for growth and jobs, both of which France desperately needs.

The country's economy is in recession, and unemployment is nearly 11 per cent. So it cannot afford to ignore the tourism industry, which accounts for more than 7 per cent of the country's gross domestic product, more than the auto industry, she said.

But it could do a lot more: International visitors spent more than double in the US than they did in France in 2012 - US$126.2 billion, compared to US$53.7 billion, according to the UN's World Tourism Organization.

That despite the fact that France welcomed 20 per cent more tourists.

So why are tourists flocking to France but unwilling to part with their cash once they get there?

Partially it's because France tends to be a short-stay location: Europeans head to Paris for a weekend; visitors from further afield combine a visit to the city with other European capitals, devoting a few days to each.

But the crowds of tourists descending on Paris are also part of the problem.

"It's sometimes a bit difficult to marry the Parisians with their 30 million tourists," says Audrey Epeche, who works in the office of Jean-Bernard Bros, the deputy mayor in charge of tourism.

She adds that this tide of visitors every year - counts vary, but Paris is definitely among the most visited cities in the world - also leads to the petty crime the city has become known for.

In April, employees at the Louvre walked off the job to protest the swarms of pickpockets that often operate in the museum. The Paris police department has even created a guide in six languages with recommendations for how to avoid thieves and scams.

While petty crime can be hard to get a handle on, the government and the city are determined to change what they can, including the reputation for snobbishness.

Working on the hunch that it's the frigid welcome that has dissuaded tourists from spending more, Paris' Chamber of Commerce and Industry has joined forces with the city's Regional Tourism Committee to create a guide for people who work in hospitality.

Called Do You Speak Touriste?, the guide focuses a lot on the obstacle of language.

The guide - available in hard copy and online - offers a few phrases in the languages of the 11 most popular countries of origin for tourists to Paris. Perhaps more important, it also offers clues to what tourists are looking for: A Brazilian wants to feel he is seeing the "hidden" Paris, for instance, or a German appreciates a handshake.

The advice can seem simple: Most tourists - surprise! - are looking for good service. But Pauline Frommer notes that small matters of politesse can make a big difference on impressions.

Frommer, who is co-publisher of the Frommer's guide books and, says she always encourages tourists to say "bonjour" when they enter a store - no matter how self-conscious they are about their French.

"If you don't, you may be treated rudely because it's seen as you thinking you're better than the shopkeeper," she says. "There is more egalite in France."

But Edouard Lefebvre from Comite Champs-Elysees, which represents the shops on the famous avenue, notes that the French also need to be more flexible themselves.

For Lefebvre, the lack of garbage bins on the avenue is a sign of how the French can sometimes ignore the comfort of tourists.

A tourist "has come 7,000 kilometres to see the Champs-Elysees, the most beautiful avenue in the world, that embodies France and its prestige and its influence in the world and there isn't a garbage can," he says, with disbelief.

Still, the Champs-Elysees has a leg up on many other parts of Paris, since stores there won the right in 2009 to open on Sundays. Tradition and law conspire to shut down most shops - from supermarkets to clothing stores - throughout the capital, except in seven designated "tourist zones". The world-famous department stores - Printemps, Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marche - are not included.

And that has led to concerns that Sunday closures are driving down tourism revenue.

And it's not just Sundays: French life is still highly rhythmic, even in major cities. Lunch is from 12pm to 2pm - pity the tourist who woke up late and wants anything more than a soggy sandwich at 3pm.

Dinner is served from 8 to 10. The Do You Speak Touriste guide notes that Spaniards - notorious for their midnight dinners - should especially be warned of this. But too bad for anyone with jetlag looking for a late-night bite.

In fact, one of the surprising hassles of Paris may be struggling to find a good meal at any hour. In the provinces, world-class restaurants often hide in unlikely places, delighting those who overlook shabby ambiance to take a chance. But along the grand Parisian boulevards most frequented by visitors, good food can be elusive.

But Epeche, who works at city hall, said France is unique as a tourist destination in that people come not just to see the country's beauty but its people, too.

"The tourist who loved his first visit is going to come back because he wants to live Paris as a Parisian," said Epeche. "He's going to want to install himself in a sidewalk cafe as Parisians do for hours, drink a coffee or two or three."