France, regional approach

According to statistics published by the World Tourism Organization, France is the number one destination in the world in terms of the number of inbound trips annually. Without reiterating criticism of the data (see Statistics), it should be noted that these are non-resident travellers. Although public policy may seek ‘balance’ in the numbers, they are, like local residents, unequally dispersed throughout the country. A regional approach is therefore intended to account for the differences in visitor numbers between spatial units.

It should be specified that this entry pertains specifically to mainland France in Europe. The entry French overseas territories focuses on the confetti of empire. What are these approaches and on what spatial bases are they founded?

Regionalisation distorted through the institutional lens

The regional approach to tourism in France was initially based on institutional division. Jean Ginier (1974) produced a map adapted from the departmental model. This model also appears in Alain Mesplier’s manual (2015). The author pushes this argument to the point of asserting egalitarianism by potential, contradicting the reality of the facts.

For example, a strong case is made to counter the Hauts-de-France region’s negative image. The climate is not really that bad. The transport infrastructure is excellent (which, in fact, makes it possible to avoid lingering and quickly pass through). The region was also devastated by war; the destruction left little to see… But there are battlefields one can visit here and there… There are also records of recent conflicts, but it is unlikely that the mention of Agincourt would motivate many tourists.

Analysts are strongly encouraged to follow this trend by institutional machinery. Data is rarely produced by INSEE at the municipal level to more clearly break the numbers down; most measures are available based on the departmental model, and other data is available at the regional level. This was used extensively in Memento, which was published until 2019 by the Directorate General for Enterprises (DGE) at the French Ministry of Economics and Finance. The 2015 reform which reduced the number of regions from 22 to 13 also expanded the model, further diluting the data.

Research is conducted without questioning this model (Pestanaa et al., 2011). It does not make any sense. One simply has to analyse locally produced maps to realise that the use of the coastline is limited to the closest cities and towns, and a few others located hardly more than ten kilometres inland, outside of Provence.

Institutional space rarely matches visited space. A small part of the former can be described as a tourist attraction, e.g., the Loire Valley is only a narrow strip running through the Centre-Val de Loire region, just as tourists in Brittany mainly settle along the coastal peripheries. Or rather, the tourist entity may inadvertently be divided between two different administrative units, like the Dordogne Valley and its tributaries spread between Périgord and Lot. This essentially halves visitor numbers measured at the departmental level.

A spatial structure approach which is also lacking

Other geographers interpret regionalisation through the model of type of space, i.e. coastline, mountain, city or countryside. This is yet another generalised approach which overlooks disparities. This approach was favoured by Georges Cazes (1982), Daniel Clary (1993) and Nacima Baron-Yelles (1999), who were careful not to produce a regional map of tourism in France based on this model, although it is made plain in their published works.

Another perspective

Various other frames of reference have been proposed. The first, by Rémy Knafou (1997), puts forth an approach that combines tourism potential with a historical dimension.

Ill. 1. France’s tourism space in Europe according to Rémy Knafou (source: Knafou, 1997: p. 125)

A second perspective looks at the French space based on the dominant tourist practices (Mondou and Violier, 2009). Based on the analysis that individuals choose a destination according to social norms, codes and plans, which depend on previous experience, notably within the previous year, it is possible to identify dominant practices and to correlate them with the selected destinations (Violier, 2017, Ill. 2). It was possible to establish an initial map taking into account local data.

Ill. 2. France’s tourist regions in Europe (source: Violier, 2017: p. 277)

A third approach is based on the historical analysis of tourism development. There are two processes which can be distinguished (Violier et al., 2021). The development of tourism is the result of diverting wealth acquired through economic development for recreational purposes. Paris has become one of the most popular destinations in the World, but we propose extending this to all destinations promoting historical heritage. Moreover, tourist places have been invented and created on the margins of national land from nothing, notably along the coast and in the mountains. This basic pattern has become more complex due to growing interest in areas nearly untouched by humans, as well as the production of heritage based on the legacies of older forms of tourism, particularly along the coast.

Philippe Violier


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  • Cazes Georges, 1986, Le tourisme en France, PUF, Que-sais-je, 126 pages
  • Daniel Clary, 1993, Le tourisme dans l’espace français, Masson, Géographie, 376 pages
  • Knafou Rémy, 1997, Atlas de France, Tourisme et loisirs,  La documentation française, Paris 126 pages
  • Mondou Véronique et Violier Philippe, 2009, En collaboration avec, Projets ; pratiques et lieux touristiques, quelles relations ? Mappemonde, 94-2, 15 pages,
  • Pestanaa Barros Carlos, Botti Laurent, Peypoch Nicolas, Robinot Elisabethe, Solonandrasana Bernardind, Assaf A. George, 2011, Performance of French destinations : Tourism attraction perspectives, Tourism Management 32, pages 141–146
  • Violier Philippe, 2017, Les régions touristiques de la France, Chapitre 23, dans Fagnoni Edith (sous la direction de), Les espaces du tourisme et des loisirs, Armand Colin, Horizon, pages 271-282
  • Violier Philippe (Direction), Duhamel Philippe, Gay Jean-Christophe, Mondou Véronique, 2021, Le tourisme en France, ISTE Editions, Volume 2 : approche régionale, 232 pages