French overseas territories

With nearly 2.8 million inhabitants (the equivalent of the Bourgogne-Franche Comté region) and over 120,000 km², the French overseas territories (France d’outre-mer, FOM) are divided into thirteen entities with different statuses. The most well-known are the four former colonies which became overseas departments
(départements d’outre-mer, DOM) in 1946 and overseas regions (régions d’outre-mer, ROM) in 1982. Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique and Reunion have a common history, marked by slavery until 1848 and assimilation when departmental status was assigned in 1946. They have a total population of over 1.9 million. There are also various other French overseas territories
, including Mayotte, which became a DOM in 2011, and others referred to as overseas collectivities (collectivités d’outre-mer, COM) since 2003, with the exception of New Caledonia which, under the Nouméa Accord (1998), is a collectivity with a special status. With the exception of New Caledonia, which contains nickel reserves, FOM is in a challenging economic situation. Unemployment affects more than one in four workers in the DOM. Overseas economies have structural trade deficits, with extremely low coverage ratios.

The origins of overseas tourism

The islands of the South Seas are undoubtedly more evocative than islands in the Indian Ocean or the Caribbean, which have been associated with piracy. Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811), through his travels from 1766 to 1769, recorded in the log he kept and published in 1771, promoted Tahiti to the lasting status of paradise in the eyes of Europeans, as of the end of the 18th century. The Pacific has greatly contributed to the evolution of tourism. It is the incubator of the 3S’s — sea, sand and sun. Its aesthetic and seaside components took hold.

Colonisation has fundamentally driven the spread of tourism. Although slightly behind the British, the French created new tourist destinations in Madagascar, Indochina, West Africa and in a few tropical island territories that are still French today. They try to escape the hot and suffocating atmosphere by going to higher altitude, if only temporarily. In Dolé-les-Bains, Guadeloupe, after the abolition of slavery, a thermal spa and a comfortable hotel were opened in 1920. In Reunion, the cirques of Salazie and Cilaos hosted the first affluent spa guests. Hell-Bourg, known more for the climate than the spas, at an elevation of 900 m, gained local renown. In the interwar period, there were ambitions to make Cilaos, which is at an elevation of 1,200 m, the major spa location in the Indian Ocean .

A location must correspond to the aesthetic canons and practices of the moment to become a tourist attraction. It must also be accessible. In the first half of the 20th century, the majority of FOM were not tourist hotspots or had to make do with affluent residents. Domestic tourism was only marginally supplemented by inbound tourism. Travelling by sea was oppressively remote and slow, but the political and economic isolation and circumstances of the French colonies also played a role. At the end of the 19th century, the French West Indies saw the arrival of the first United States citizens who travelled on mixed couriers and came especially during Carnival.

The revival of overseas tourism paradoxically emerged… in the Mediterranean. The Polynesian dream was transformed into a tourism product through Club Med, which evoked the imagery of the South Seas to develop its holiday clubs. But Club Med not only used the Polynesian dream in Corfu or Corsica. In 1955, more for prestige than profitability, Club Med rented a hotel in Punaauia, Tahiti. This marked a pivotal time for tourism practices before and after the interwar period, with notably the establishment of Club Med in Moorea in the early 1960s, in areas favourable to seaside activities. Overseas tourism then entered a new phase, with the development of an activity based on the 3S’s.

The aeroplane era from the 1950s onwards

Paradoxically, while insularity — once a handicap as it was synonymous with isolation — became an asset because it tended to guarantee the dream of paradise and the authenticity of local societies. The spectacular advancement of air transport made travel possible for a much greater number of tourists. The introduction of long-haul, four-engine aircraft in the late 1950s revolutionised service to remote islands. The opening of Faa’a Airport in 1960 considerably shortened the journey between mainland France and Tahiti.

The State as developer (1960-1970)

In the early 1950s, tourists were few and far between in overseas territories. In 1956, there were 65 hotel rooms in the French West Indies, which constituted only 0.5% of the Caribbean’s hotel capacity. Things began to shift in 1955 when the National association for the development of overseas tourism (Association nationale pour le développement du tourisme outre-mer, ANTOM) was created. The following year, the French Ministry of overseas territories promoted tourism as a way for the territories it oversaw to develop socially and economically. The State intervened in two main ways. Firstly, the DOM investment fund (fonds d’investissement des DOM, FIDOM) was used to fund infrastructure projects linked to the construction of hotels, which benefit from long-term loans at highly advantageous rates. The effects of this policy could be seen starting in 1963, under the Quatrième Plan (1962-1965), with the opening of three international-class hotels: two in Guadeloupe, including the Fort-Royal (Ill. 1), and one in Martinique.

Ill. 1. The Fort-Royal Hotel in Deshaies, Guadeloupe (© Jean-Christophe Gay, 2008)

Secondly, following the example of the pro-active regional planning policy in mainland France, an interministerial mission to develop tourism in overseas departments was created in 1965, Mission Racine, which concentrated its efforts in the West Indies. The decision was made to create tourist areas referred to as ‘rivieras’. The idea was to concentrate tourist facilities (marinas, casinos, golf courses, hotels, etc.) near the international airport. In Martinique, Fort-de-France Bay, in the direction of Schoelcher and Trois-Îlets, as well as the southern coast, around Sainte-Anne and Sainte-Luce, were selected.

Martinique and Guadeloupe later acquired hotel infrastructure of international standard primarily during the Sixième Plan (1971-1975). During the 1970s, Guadeloupe’s hotel capacity was multiplied by 2.5. Some 3,000 hotel rooms were built on the ‘Riviera Sud de la Grande-Terre’, with the creation of the resorts Gosier, Sainte-Anne and Saint-François, and at Pointe-du-Bout in Martinique.

1986: A pivotal year

The Pons law was intended to encourage investment in sectors deemed to be overseas priorities (in industry, fishing, tourism, agriculture, construction, etc.), in return for tax cuts and exemptions. The results in the West Indies were spectacular. The number of rooms shot up. In ten years’ time, hotel capacity in Saint-Martin increased fivefold; the number of accommodations in Martinique increased 56% between 1985 and 1990; and the number of pleasure boats in Guadeloupe increased more than eightfold. However, this law had negative effects and many investors favoured fiscal interest to the detriment of profitability. In order to limit abuse, Parliament voted to rewrite the law in 1997, notably limiting the ‘double dip’ deductions of operating losses with the investment itself. In 2001, the Pons law was replaced by the Paul law and then by the Girardin law in 2003.

Air transport also benefited from tax exemptions and several overseas companies (Air Guadeloupe, Aircalin, Air Tahiti Nui, etc.), as well as Air France, acquired aircraft at advantageous rates. However, in 1986, the quasi-monopoly of Air France and Union de Transports Aériens came to an end. The liberalisation of air transport and the arrival of new companies (Minerve, Aéromaritime, Air Liberté, Corsair and AOM) had an impact on the number of available seats and on fares. The aggressive policy of charter companies forced Air France to lower prices and from 1987 onwards the flow of tourists notably increased. The combination of lower airfares and more accommodation contributed to the significant development of tourism in DOM. For example, in Martinique, the number of tourists, excluding pleasure boaters, rose from 193,000 in 1985 to 311,000 in 1989.

Secondary destinations

Before the Covid crisis, FOM received about 2.5 million tourists per year, with more than half going to the West Indies. Tourist numbers remained low in French Guiana, Mayotte, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, and Wallis and Futuna (Ill. 2).

Ill. 2. Tourism indicators in 2018 (sources: INSEE, IEDOM, IEOM, ISPF, ISEE, the Saint Pierre and Miquelon tourism committee, the Saint Barthélemy territorial committee of tourism and the regional tourism observatory of Guadeloupe; production: Jean-Christophe Gay)

Tourism has moderate weight in the overseas economy despite the major challenges to assessing its real role: tourism represents no more than 5% of overseas GDP, with the exception of French Polynesia where it makes up 17% and employs 18% of the salaried workforce. Unlike other small island economies, FOM has not turned the corner on tourism in the last 30 years. Growth is slower than that of neighbouring countries, which corresponds to a loss of market share. Of the major tourist destinations in the Pacific, French Polynesia and New Caledonia experienced the lowest growth in visitor numbers. The same observation can be made in the Indian Ocean. The Greater Antilles has seen spectacular tourist development compared to Martinique and Guadeloupe.

The cruise business also pales in comparison. In Martinique and Guadeloupe, the number of cruise passengers has only exceeded one million once, in 1996, falling to less than 150,000 in 2011 and rising to 777,000 in 2018. This evolution, which is bumpy to say the least, contrasts with the almost constant progression of cruise passengers in the Caribbean, the world’s leading cruise destination, drawing more than a third of the world’s cruise ships. The share of Martinique and Guadeloupe in Caribbean cruise activity, after having reached 9.3% in 1996, is today less than 3%. It is therefore clear that overseas France does not meet its tourism potential today.

Few international tourists

The majority of tourists visiting FOM are from mainland France, despite the distance and the proximity of major senders. While this represents only about a quarter of visitor numbers in French Polynesia and a third of those in New Caledonia — which is rather remarkable given how remote the region is — it constitutes about three quarters of the tourist flow to the West Indies and Reunion. In other parts of the world, these destinations suffer from their low profile. Overseas islands, and especially the West Indies, are the top winter destinations for the French, who seek out weather conditions that none of the Mediterranean destinations (which dominate the other seasons) can offer, while remaining in a familiar context: French-speaking and in the euro zone. Many DOM tourists have family or friendly ties with local residents. In Reunion, in 2019, these ties applied to 35% of tourists.

Non-competitive economies

The under-performance overseas betrays structural problems. The source of income based on huge public transfers, through increased salaries for civil servants and social benefit payments, has multiplied demand but negatively affected export sectors such as receiver tourism, which is considered an export of services. Highly exposed to competition from neighbouring or similar destinations, which benefit from better exchange rates, lower operating costs and less strict and costly building standards, receiver tourism is the first to be affected by what is known as ‘Dutch Disease’, which has been highlighted in relation to economies which suddenly receive an increase in revenue. It cannot be protected (except through subsidies or tax exemptions). Its margins are reduced due to the rise in costs and the inability to pass this on in prices. Development is inhibited on a long-term basis. There is a gap in competitiveness between FOM and neighbouring countries.

Hotels are the first to be impacted by these circumstances, with a hotel industry that has contracted and whose quality is considered insufficient. The increasing number of hotel closures has had obvious consequences on the landscape, with the creation of hotel wastelands. Prestigious establishments remain abandoned for a very long time and are vandalised and used by squatters and drug traffickers. Once surrounded by lush parks, they become an unreal and unsettling sight in the heart of tourist hotspots, such as the Méridien in Pointe-du-Bout, which was abandoned twice in the 2000s before being demolished in 2016 (Ill. 3), Le Surf in Nouméa and Club Med in Bora Bora.

Ill. 3. The abandoned Méridien in Pointe-du-Bout (Martinique) (© Jean-Christophe Gay, 2008)

Tourism overlooked

Public transfers help to spur solvent domestic demand, explaining the importance of domestic and outbound tourism, which are largely overlooked in overseas tourism analyses focused on macro-economic indicators of trade balance deficits. Considering the high purchasing power of part of the overseas population, in particular civil servants who receive substantial monetary benefits, it should be noted that the tourism balance of certain overseas collectivities is negative, contrary to mainland France. As a result, the tourists who visit spend less than residents outside their territory.

In addition to outbound stays, one should not overlook domestic tourism, which has grown considerably with the rise in vehicle ownership, more free time and the greater number of guest houses and lodgings. In the overlooked and little known New Caledonia, domestic demand for the bush and the islands relies mainly on visitors from mainland France. Most only spend a few years in New Caledonia, but they use all types of accommodation and are the primary customers of lodgings and campsites during holidays or at weekends (Ill. 4). The same observation can be made in French Guiana Guyana.

Ill. 4. Haut-Coulna tribe lodging (Hienghène, New Caledonia) (© Jean-Christophe Gay, 2009)

The highlights of overseas tourism

Bora Bora and Saint-Barthélemy stand out among overseas tourist spaces due to high tourist appeal, pronounced internationalisation and the overwhelming dominance of commercial accommodation.

Bora Bora rose to the status of legendary island much later than Tahiti. Long overlooked, it is now the epicentre of the Polynesian dream and welcomed more than 119,000 tourists and cruise passengers in 2019. Bora Bora is a small island (29 km2). It is a pseudo-atoll with a lagoon almost three times the size of the island. The first hotel to open in 1961 was the Bora Bora. In 1973, 15,000 tourists visited Bora Bora, about one fifth of France’s total tourist flow. Two thirds of jobs were already linked to tourism. Bora Bora would only continue to thrive with a qualitative progression of the offering. The facilities created in the last few decades have been increasingly luxurious and mainly feature overwater bungalows, which have become the image associated with Bora Bora (Ill. 5).

Ill. 5. International hotels and overwater bungalows in Bora Bora (© Jean-Christophe Gay, 2022)

Tourism has led to very strong demographic growth, made possible by the desalination of sea water. Between 1971 and 2017, the population of Bora Bora almost quintupled from 2,215 to 10,605, and tourism mono-activity increased.

In the north of the Lesser Antilles, Saint-Barthélemy is surrounded by islands that receive affluent tourists, such as Anguilla, Saba and Barbuda. This highly competitive context has not hindered the island from becoming a model of successful tourism. Tourism has totally transformed life on this small island spanning 21 km2. The island has been inhabited for more than three centuries by a population originally from Normandy, Brittany, Vendée and Poitiers. As late as the 1960s, local inhabitants lived simply and engaged in subsistence farming. The control of land has been the basis of tourist growth regulated by the city council.

‘St Barts’ combines activities involving the beach, shopping and gastronomy. The length of the airport runway (only 650 m) is inversely proportional to the wealth of the tourists who use it. Johnny Halliday, who was buried there, Bill Gates, Princess Diana and Madonna have all visited the island. For the past three decades, St Barts has had a unique set of features in overseas France: high security, good accessibility, top-notch accommodation and a distinctly French touch which sets it apart from its direct and nearby competitors. St Barts is one of those rare places where the world’s wealthiest people go, like Gstaad, Monte Carlo and Mustique.

Jean-Christophe Gay


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