Campsites are a type of accommodation that originated in the late 19th century and became popular in France in the early 20th century. After a period during which society became familiar with the concept, it became one of the most popular types of mass tourism, contributing to the social diffusion of the practice. It has diversified over time, with some campsites offering sophisticated accommodations.

A simple enclosed area and minimal services

According to the definition in the Memento du Tourisme published by the Direction Générale des Entreprises (latest edition 2019), “campsites are intended for tents, caravans, mobile homes and light dwellings. They are made up of bare pitches or pitches equipped with one of these amenities, as well as common infrastructure. All pitches offered are counted, whether they are for tourists or residential clients. Tourist pitches are intended for a tourist clientèle that does not live permanently on site. A distinction is made between bare pitches and rental pitches, which are equipped with accommodation such as a chalet, bungalow or mobile home. A residential (or year-round rental) pitch is a site reserved for residential rental, i.e., to a single customer for the entire period the campsite is open.”

This definition includes sites that accommodate more than just tents or caravans (Ill. 1). The definition should also mention that these campsites include a fenced perimeter; otherwise, the term wild camping should be used. Bivouacking, which is popular in the mountains, can be done outside an enclosure, but sometimes in a mountain hut called a refuge. The definition also does not mention motorhomes, which are self-propelled recreational vehicles and can be accommodated at campsites, often in special sections (Ill. 2), or even sites made available by private individuals, usually farmers or wine growers. This type of motorhome camping on private land appeared in 1993 in the vineyards of southern France and then spread to other growers starting in 1997, according to the history described on the France Passion website (accessed on August 3, 2022).

Ill. 1. Traditional campsite mostly for tents in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, Gorges du Verdon (photo by Philippe Violier, 3 August 2012)
Ill. 2. Motorhome area in Balaruc-les-Bains, located in the former municipal campsite (photo by Philippe Violier, 8 September 2021)

Finally, the distinction between residential pitches (Ill. 3 and 4) and tourist pitches available for rent needs clarification. After all, the owner of a residential accommodation can rent it out, with the consent of the campsite manager of course. But there are operators whose strategy is based on “sublets” (Violier et al., 2021). The campsite management can manage these accommodations, but the owner can also rent their property directly on the internet, via specialised websites, or to friends and acquaintances. The French taxation system has dealt with this by creating a ‘non-commercial declaration’, as long as it remains limited.

In the same way as for short-term rentals offered through digital platforms, there are concierge companies that provide reception services, inventory inspections, and even cleaning services on behalf of the owners. This type of accommodation has also become popular with businesses seeking housing for employees on business trips, especially during the low season when prices are more affordable. Therefore, care should be taken not to consider all people staying at campsites as tourists. However, this seems to be quite limited for the time being.

Ill. 3. Lane reserved for residential sites in the Del Forte campsite in Bibbona, Etruscan coast, south of Livorno, Italy (photo by Philippe Violier, 31 May 2022)
Ill. 4. Under the canopies set up to provide shade, a quiet residential site in Camping Del Forte in Bibbona, Etruscan coast, south of Livorno, Italy (photo by Philippe Violier, 31 May 2022)


Camping originated based on the model of military camps (Sirost, 2001a) and traditional nomadic canvas dwellings, as a rejection of the urban and industrial lifestyle, and a search for “moral hygiene” (Sirost, 2001a). Religious youth organisations were originally behind the movement, before clubs took over (the first was created in France in 1910) and spread the practice by teaching the necessary skills, such as how to set up a tent, and sharing experiences, including weathering storms and other harsh conditions. In addition to this British influence, German nature discovery movements inherited from romanticism spread in France when Alsace and Lorraine reverted to French ownership.

The word ‘camping’ itself appeared in French in 1903 (Sirost, 2001a). Organisations such as the Fédération Gymnique et Sportive du Travail and Tourisme et Travail contributed to the social diffusion of tourism through this mode of accommodation (Sirost, 2001a), and tourism clubs, notably the Touring-Club de France in 1905 (Bertho-Lavenir, 2001), contributed by disseminating information and models and creating the first infrastructure, as was the case in Auvergne (Tissandier, 2001). Finally, after World War I, youth movements made an even greater contribution, as André Rauch wrote (2001).

However, the main thing is not in the dates or in the figures, which are not very significant. Instead, it lies in the messages and practices that converge to rehabilitate nature, which rural people had started to abandon. The crisis of the 1920s led to slogans promoting a return to traditional rural values and a simpler way of life. Scouting organisations, both religious and secular, chose the mountains, countryside, and forests as places to socialise and educate young people. As transportation methods became faster and more convenient, walking became a pedagogical tool for these organisations. Its asceticism was meant to remind young people of the human condition of pilgrims (Rauch, 1996). Walking served as an initiation to living in nature without the aid of industrial inventions.

André Rauch, 2001

This confrontation with “nature” (Sirost, 2001b) required adapting and learning habits through direct experience or passed on from others (Raveneau and Sirost, 2001). This included skills like setting up and taking down tents, which can be challenging in bad weather or rain. It also involved developing a special set of social skills due to the relative proximity between tents and the shared use of facilities such as bathrooms. These routines were taught by youth movements, particularly in Auvergne, starting in 1913, and even more so in the interwar period (Tissandier, 2001).

Initially, the cost of camping equipment was high, but clubs helped teach camping skills and inspired entrepreneurial initiatives in equipment production, which lowered costs (Sirost, 2001). While camping seemed like a return to unrestricted, carefree outdoor life, certain social rules and values remained. The relaxation of rules was relative, even for children (De la Sourdière, 2001). And campers discovered that the countryside, represented as “nature,” was not entirely open to their exploration. They encountered mistrust or hostility from locals, including forest owners whose wood was seen as a source of fuel for campfires, suspicious elected officials, and “real” tourism professionals who perceived camping as unfair competition (Tissandier, 2001).

The emergence of camping owes much to the establishment of scouting. Young boys learned the basics of camping in scout groups, becoming potential adult campers if they retained a taste for this way of life. Scout sections organised contests to evaluate their ability to set up camp.

Tissandier, 2001

Based on these origins, camping is associated with marginal spaces. Camping is a way to conquer underdeveloped or unpopulated spaces, such as coastal areas and mountains, where camping density is highest today, although camping is not totally absent from urban peripheries and rural areas (Violier et al., 2021). Common tourism processes, such as the recycling or repurposing of obsolete objects or values and the rejection of the world produced by industrial civilisation, are also present. But, as always in tourism, this facet is combined with an attraction to modernity and innovations that enable camping to spread and evolve as a form of accommodation.

Diversity and rankings

The range of campsite accommodations, like other types of accommodation, is diverse and depends on the quality of the facilities and the creativity of the managers. Historically, the camping system has also diversified. To address the difficulty individuals have in getting information about campsite facilities due to distance, the government has implemented a star rating system. Originally limited to hotels in 1937, the system was extended to campsites in 1959 (Breton, 2016). In France, the current regulations come from a 2009 law that made three important changes: private accredited organisations now evaluate and award stars based on 204 criteria, rather than the government; stars are valid for five years, rather than permanently; and a sixth category, including “natural areas,” was established following the example of foreign countries. Rental rates vary based on the destination and the number of stars.

With the exception of “natural areas” that are open for up to six months per year, have a maximum capacity of 25 sites, and cover an area of 1 hectare” (website of the French Federation of Campers), the rating system is based on several characteristics. The higher the number of stars, the better the amenities, such as:

  • the size of each pitch,
  • the quality of hospitality and the reservation system,
  • the number of services offered, including the comfort and convenience of the bathroom facilities.


Camping is also a mode of accommodation that originally requires little investment and is therefore well adapted to seasonality. However, the dominant view of camping as a working class, mass tourism attraction no longer holds true (Raveneau and Sirost, 2001). Social diversity is now the norm. Campsites with the highest star ranking have become veritable private resorts where the accommodation options, which vary according to the operators’ strategies, also include amenities such as multiple indoor and outdoor pools and water slides, steam rooms and saunas, along with restaurants, supermarkets, and on-site or off-site leisure activities managed directly or through subcontracting. The spread of mobile homes from England is another development that allows for a relative decrease in seasonality, with campsites open from March to October, whereas in the past they were open only in the summer months. Offering a more sophisticated camping experience spreads the amortisation of the investments over a longer period of time, but also results in higher prices. The trend is toward a decrease in the total number of campsites, but an increase in the number of establishments offering more comfort (Fabre, 2017).

These developments have resulted in higher rental rates but also in an increase in the number of jobs, both year-round, for maintenance, repairs and marketing even when the campsites are closed to the public (Ill. 5) and during the high season, especially if more diverse activities are offered (Violier et al., 2021). Campsites have become a business, with fewer municipally-run campsites managed by untrained employees. The campsites, which were initially family-run, or created by farmers in desirable locations, are now merging into large chains and diversifying their strategies, some choosing to position themselves as traditional, tent-based campsites, and others that are practically as upscale as holiday resorts (Violier et al., 2021). Campsites are no longer frequented only by people of modest means, and the range of options has expanded.

Ill. 5. Delivery of a mobile home at a campsite in Bibbona, on the Etruscan coast south of Livorno, on May 27, 2022. The season starts on June 1st (photo by Philippe Violier, 27 May 2022).

Campsite holidays seem to be associated with rest and relaxation, but this view is simplistic

Many people believe that campsites are for holidaymakers who want to stay in just one place and take it easy. This image, perpetuated by the three Camping films and the television series Camping Paradis, is incorrect, even though certain habits are repeated for years, from generation to generation. However, although this also involves a mastery of the skills required, it is a systematisation, even a caricature. A tent, motorhome or mobile home can be used as a base to explore different areas and go on excursions. Furthermore, since the earliest days of camping (Bertho-Lavenir, 2001), adventures including physical activities such as hiking or trekking require a tent as an easily transportable habitat, even on tours offered by specialised tour operators.

Ultimately, camping is a unique form of accommodation that has played an important role in the history of tourism, and it continues to be a popular and enjoyable way to experience the outdoors.

Philippe Violier


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