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Letter from France: Tourism and resort cities

July 9th, 2009 · 15 Comments

We’re coming to the end of our little marathon here in Europe, where we’ve managed to do what seems like one of everything (Paris, check; chateau in the country, check; little village in Languedoc, check; wonderful beach resort in Cinque Terre, Italy, check; street life in Bologna, check). For the last three days, we’ve been holed up at a lovely little hotel in a near-deserted village in the Central Massif, run by a London couple who left their award-winning gastropub behind to raise their kids, make pate and run a hotel here.

The village (or more accurately, collection of houses) we’re in is now home to 21 people — barely more than the number of names on the ubiquitous monument to the village’s dead boys from the first and second world wars. It has emptied out as farming life declines and young people have gone off to the cities.

The two liveliest activities in town are now this small hotel and another one facing it, which hosts groups who want a meeting place. Currently it’s occupied by a group of Dutch tango enthusiasts, who can be seen through the windows doing their stuff late into the evening.

Hitting as many cities and towns as we did on this trip reminds me of the question that faces so many places in this globalized, shifting world, which is: How do you achieve a place that attracts visitors, but doesn’t become just a resort city or a dead monument to the past?

In Vancouver, we often wring our hands at the thought that the city is just becoming the northern equivalent of a Mexican beach town, filled with foreigners who only live there part-time and have no investment in the long-term well-being of the city.

But that issue of resortification is really what so many cities are struggling with and it seems hard to hit just the right balance. Cities that don’t attract anyone are depressing, usually economic losers. But cities that are only filled with tourists and foreigners seem equally depressing, stage sets with no real life, just mobs of tourists snapping pictures of each other in front of yet another old church.

Europe has a lot of those kinds of cities.  Bruges was one that really struck me that way, which made me relate instantly to the character in the movie “In Bruges” who says he’s always hated the city. There was another small village we visited near here, Lavaudieu, which was yet another of those French towns that are historical — and dead. We liked Bologna so much, because it felt like it was inhabited by regular residents who were enjoying their own city.

Yet we can’t just stop tourism or stop people from migrating around, not in this world. And, as some have started to point out, tourism done the right way can actually enhance local economies and do some good. Certainly the town of Bedoin, at the base of Mont Ventoux, is a town that appears to have prospered from benign tourism, as large flocks of cyclists head up the mountain every day to pretend they are Lance Armstrong.

And I see people like Harry and Ali, who run the little Auberge de Chassignolles we’re staying in, bringing some life back into villages that are dying. They make their own jams, some from fruit they gather in the forest; they make their own pates and salamis from local meat; they raise the ducks that get eaten at dinner and buy as much as they can locally, from the cheese market in Ambert or the escargot gatherer elsewhere.

That kind of migration doesn’t bring back the old rural France. But it could possibly provide a foundation for a new one. Maybe I’m being my usual romantic or idealistic self, but here’s hoping. I’ll be checking back in 20 years.

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  • I have often thought that Granville Island is a perfect microcosm of what this excellent post is all about. When it started, Norm Hotson and Joost Bakker and others working on the project, had some very strong ideas as to what would make it distinctively Vancouver. By prohibiting any businesses that had another outlet, it was hoped that this would help contribute to a special sense of place. Similarly, be re-using, rather than replacing the old metal buildings (something Public Works officials wanted to do), a special architectural character developed.

    By retaining the concrete operation (in part because its lease was too expensive to buy out) along with the restaurants, galleries, market, etc. we hoped this place would be different than so many of the other festival retail markets that were being developed across North America.

    While Granville Island was never planned to be a tourist attraction, it started to become one. I recall quite vividly a debate in 1986 over whether to allow a small Tourist Centre in a building I had recently helped convert into an interim parking garage. Notwithstanding many objections, the government put in the visitor centre, and I often thought that was the turning point in the decline of Granville Island from being an authentic Vancouver place into a tourist destination.

    That’s not to say I still don’t enjoy the place. I do. But I no longer do my weekly shopping there and while I very much enjoy sitting on the deck at Bridges, I do worry that the island is in danger of becoming a caricature of itself.

    So Frances, I hope these ramblings help contribute to a discussion on how Vancouver can retain its distinctive character and sense of place, and not slowly morph into just another international city. Personally, I think we can succeed….I’m not overly worried…but we do need to continually check the balance between maintaining economic health and authenticity.

    That’s why we should all pay attention to the debate over electronic billboards in Surrey and Vancouver’s current view/capacity study. They are both good examples of our current challenges.

  • Darcy McGee

    Michael’s perspective on Granville Island is useful. The nature of the place evolves and continues too, leading to its eventual reputation as a tourist trap. Open a new dedicated “farmer’s market” and it will likely happen with that venue as well.

    C’est la vie.

  • East Vancouverite

    Thank you Frances for another great dispatch from abroad.

    On Granville Island, I agree with Micheal that it is one of the most genuine places in Vancouver but I too worry that it is in jeopardy. Possibly nothing demonstrates this more than the 30th anniversary illustrated posters that were commissioned. They are filled with dazzling colours and scenes of festivitals and daily life. All of which is good. However they also show wall to wall people walking through the streets and not a single car. This is Granville Island’s blind spot. They think the Island is made up of dynamic shared spaces when in reality, as someone who has worked on the Island for 10 years, all I see are streets that are shared until a car wishes to drive through. At that point its a road and people better get out of the way.

    Locals still make up the majority of visits to Granville Island and since the majority of tour buses were banished from the Island the sense of ownership has shifted back to locals.

  • Frothingham

    A lovely read Frances… makes me want to get on a plane and head over to the Central Mastiff and to hills surrounding Bologna.

    As for GI. I stopped going there years ago, well over ten I would guess. It got to be so damn trendy and phony. Some of the produce there is three times more expensive than what I could find in the great markets on Commercial drive and on East Hastings in North Burnaby. Ditto for all kinds of other specialty items.

    It’s still a great place to send visitors from out of town to visit. But so is the TnT markets. And at half the price.

    As to why GI has denigrated into what it is is because it was not an ORGANIC SELF REALIZED place. Any place that is designed instantly by one or two people will not ever be an organic self developing place. For this look to the great market towns of europe etc. Here in NA architects and other Designers think that they CREATE that charm the people find in europe. But those places happened because of local needs and were not planned but organically grew from local peoples needs.

    Look at how Gastown, Granville Island, and perhaps others, go through a very similar kind of evolution from “in” to “out” in such a relatively short time.

    You just can’t Design or Engineer uthenticy . 😉

  • Granville Island, thanqxz Ron B, has always been dichotomous: East, parking and big chunks of concrete/west “sort of ” farmers market and eats.

    I used to shop there all the time, for my groceries, until about 1996.

    3 hrs free moorage, when I can get it, for my sail boat to pop in for a quick lunch and shower . . .

    Mulvaney’s was a genteel place to eat but when it turned into Sandbar thanqxz but no thanqxz: incredibly noisy. I did the DP and BP work for the red shed: 1971+/-.

    The Johnston Street approach has always been clogged and when the fast food joint built over the tracks I thought a big opportunity had been missed.

    Aw its still okay . . .

  • Yeah GI to the east just does not work.

    Unlike the west side all those ugly ECUAD sheds and chunks of concrete do not reflect their purpose to sensitize young minds into creative contemplation.

    The design fraternity is clearly incapable of wrapping their minds around INCREMENTAL.

    No matter how large or complex the programme it may still be incremenatlized into component parts that then may, god know should, be articulated around contiguous public place and circulation.

    Unfortunately the design fraternity lacks that level of sophistication: it has gone corporate and can thinq of little else than the next meetings, expensive suits and E&O . . . pity!

  • PS . . . and of course being corporate they poop their pants the minute CREATIVITY peeks around the corner . . .

  • Joe Just Joe

    I kind of get the old Granville Island feeling when I visit the flea market on Terminal. A odd collection of businesses that feed off of each other to create a vibrant buzz . Perhaps some renos could be done to that old building and we could introduce a farmers market there. They should elimante the entry fee and up the parking rate to make up for it. I’m just not sure the location works.

  • Bill Lee
  • Bill Lee

    My legs hurt looking at the climb of Mont Ventoux.

    and about as close as Mlle Bula’s tres petite village gets to Le Tour, 300 km northwest from Ventoux

  • Denis

    When I first retired at the grand old age of 39 and a half, along with my wife and two kids, we decided to spend some more time in Europe. I used to go there at least once a month in my job.

    I had four bikes waiting when we landed in southern Germany, flew over to the north of Scotland, down throug the country to England, then over to France, Belgium , the Netherlands and finally back to southern Germany It took over six months, and just over 5,000 miles. Mostly staying in Youth Hostels and our kids had a ball trying to understand all those languages. They soon found that no matter how loud you speak in English, it proved little in a number of countries. They are all adults now and still talk about what they saw and learned. Yes we got permission to take them out of school early and the Principal tried to convince us to take him along with us. It’s great to get four ltrs. of wine with lunch and know the kids can’t drink it so we did. Ever see a live chicken on the bar in a really small French eating spot? Or have a server write down the menu so us uneducated Canadians could read what they were cooking for that meal? TO get caught up in the tail end of the Tour de France was really eciting as those guys flahsed by yelling Vitesse. T hey laughed with us, not at us as we always tried the local dialect. My wifes german got pretty good over time. It’s sad so many folks simply never get the chance to take off and see a bit of the world with the locals. And bring along a couple of preteens. Then come back to reality. A trip none of us will ever forget and I’m sure you feel the same way as you unwound in another country Francis. Travel may broaden the hips but does wonders for the mind as well

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    “How do you achieve a place that attracts visitors, but doesn’t become just a resort city or a dead monument to the past?”

    I was contemplating a similar thing yesterday as I sat in the Vera’s Burger Shack that just opened on Maple Tree Square in Gastown. The cowhide patterns on the vinyl booth seats are really cute, as were the group of Japanese tourists snapping pictures and giggling away as they compared the contents of huge Fluevog bags. At the next table, a couple of lonely TO transplants were working all the angles on their new manifesto, which I’m pretty sure was called, “Why We Hate Vancouver And All Its Gold-Digging Bitches.” An American guy standing at the counter said to his buddy with a distinct New York twang, “This place reminds me of that awesome new burger joint in the Village, ya know, where that little jazz joint used to be…?” The other dude drew a blank.

    Exposed heritage brick, post and beam, floor to double-high ceiling windows, lots of natural light, organic burgers, successful local company branching out, tourists and immigrants and locals mingling, cute vinyl cowhide seats, it was all so… ubiquitous. Like the vinegar my son likes on his French Fries, or the $7 paninni you can eat at the new Waves on Cordova while you people-watch the dinner lineup that spills along the sidewalk of the Sally-Ann.

    I asked my son if he remembered Vera’s original shack on Dundarave Beach that grandma used to take us to? “Oooo-oh, yeee-aaaah….” he said slowly, and I could see memories of summer dinners on the beach start rushing back.

    At one point, he reached for the vinegar, stopped, and said, “They had balsamic vinegar there, I love that stuff!” He went and asked at the counter. Drew a blank: “What kind of vinegar?” Then more questions, a small crowd of probationary employees gathers, an eager search in the back coolers ensues. Shrugs and concerned apologies (the manager now front and center). He returns empty-handed.

    And outside there’s old Gassy perched on his barrel, hat and shoulders covered in bird shit, waiting to see how his new saloon shack is going to look when the construction dust finally settles.

    If he looked up, way, way up above the tallest treetops of the Brobdingnagian forest behind him, he’d see a hot tub in the sky.

  • Dawn Steele

    Lovely, thoughtful post, Frances – Enjoy the rest of your Grand Tour!

  • jimmy olson

    “At one point, he reached for the vinegar, stopped, and said, “They had balsamic vinegar there, I love that stuff!”” … at Vera’s many years ago? Are you sure? Cider for sure…

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    Mr. Olsen, your assertion raises a number of interesting existential questions: How does memory affect our enjoyment of food, our interaction with public space, or which kinds of people we are attracted to? Are these preferences also influenced by scale and ratios (open space to building height, hip to waist), or something less calculable – like personal values or sense of humour? Does genuine nostalgia create living monuments, or does history create dead ones? And, in the spirit of reclaiming public space, did you catch the flash mob water-fighting at Lumberman’s Arch last Saturday?

    In the context of a trip to Europe, there are more “concrete” questions to be considered as well: Would a European city do nothing while its oldest and most historic theatre rots and becomes unsalvageable? Would a European city propose to put a condo tower next to a culturally significant garden or a National Historic Site? In Europe, wouldn’t this type of “planning” be considered scandalous? Wouldn’t it be laughed out of town?

    Although I suspect you may be correct about the vinegar at Dundarave, Mr. Olsen, the fact remains they had neither balsamic or cider in Gastown, only the clear stuff. That is: the cheapest, least healthy kind that ensures the highest profit margin.