Hossegor, a municipality in the south of the Landes department in France, has been a tourist destination since the early the 20th century owing to a cultural elite. The development of seaside tourism and surfing in particular starting in the 1970s transformed the location and the social uses that were traditionally evident there. This has led to tensions between social groups over the true definition of what Hossegor should be.
An age-old and culturally elitist tourism
French seaside resorts have many objective features that make them distinct, such as size, social history, level and type of tourist facilities, and the social characteristics of residents and holidaymakers. On the coast of Aquitaine, in the south of the Landes department, Hossegor is a place built from the ground up at a time when aristocratic clientèle from Bordeaux and Paris were looking for winter holiday resorts. For many decades, this municipality was destined for a relatively elitist form of tourism with a casino, hotels, a golf course built in the 1920s, tennis courts, etc. Hossegor, a town with a population of 3,800 (2015 census) and a seaside resort since the early the 20th century, has retained a prestige that is closely linked to the social characteristics of the earliest summer visitors.
‘And this is Hossegor, my lake, or rather my gulf where the heart of the ocean beats. It exhales the freshness of the salt water, and the belt of its pines fades, velvety in the distance; a shadow descends, slightly blue, marking the fold of the valleys between the dunes. With serenity, calm, a simple and profound peace, this lagoon has long since taken my heart.’
J.-H. Rosny, a young writer and future president of the Académie Goncourt, in L’illustration, 22 July 1911
There were numerous writers, bourgeois intellectuals (Paul Margueritte, Maxime Leroy, etc.) and other industrialists who helped to build the foundation of the resort town. Figures from the political world and show business bought villas where they spent their holidays. Situated in the forest around the marine lake or a prestigious golf course, the ‘Basque-Landesque’ style villas attest to the social quality of the earliest owners.
A ‘waterfront’ was gradually developed in the 1930s in typical architectural harmony. The long tenure as mayor of a property developer from 1935 to 1972, Alfred Eluère (a member of the Radical-Socialist party), helped to establish an ongoing and harmonised tourist development. This lustre of yesteryear, at once cultural, social and architectural, is perpetuated by current residents who see in Hossegor an elitist holiday location that should be preserved. The ‘Salon du Livre’ (put on by the association ‘Les Amis du Lac’ since 1999), classical music and jazz concerts are all events that position Hossegor’s cultural offering as legitimate culture. Moreover, there are no large complexes as there are in neighbouring municipalities (Capbreton, Seignosse, Soustons, etc.), which encourage ‘family’ tourism. Unlike other seaside locations in the Landes, Hossegor does not have any outdoor accommodation, a type of tourist lodging that is nevertheless widespread in the department. The number of ‘tourist beds’ available in Hossegor in 2021 was only 729 according to INSEE (300 in hotels and 429 in ‘holiday villages’), which is low compared to Seignosse, a neighbouring municipality converted to tourism in the 1970s and 1980s (5,977 ‘beds’ of which 13 in hotels, 1,569 in campsites and 4,395 in collective accommodation). Secondary residences and rental villas are instead used by tourists in Hossegor during the summer months.
A progressively composite group
Over the last half century, Hossegor has gradually become a place renowned for surfing. The wave quality is internationally recognised, professional competitions with a high media profile have been held there since 1987, the French surfing federation has been based there since 1964, and the presence of European head offices and clubs of surfwear companies are all factors which help to make Hossegor a key ‘surf town’ in France and Europe (Guibert, 2006b). For many years, however, local elected officials and a segment of the year-round resident population were generally hesitant towards the development of surfing.
Hossegor therefore wavered in the 1990s and 2000s between a ‘surf image’ which almost automatically implied ‘youth’, ‘partying’ and ‘freedom’, and the more traditional image of an explicitly ‘chic and elegant’ resort town, according to the municipality’s slogan. The golf course and the luxurious villas spatially arranged in the cité-parc (‘city-park’, a term used by the municipality), the marine lake, an elitist cultural offering (art, literature, music) in addition to property owners with influence in local politics, maintained the socially selective cachet. In this municipality in the Landes department, people live side by side while having different ways of investing in and apprehending physical space — in other words, different ‘lifestyles’ (Bourdieu, 1979), both in terms of the way they dress and the way they move.
The different ways of occupying physical space in Hossegor tend to organise the area into ‘micro-territories’ which imply singular, conscious or unconscious behaviours. The areas around the golf course or the villas around the lake are therefore used differently from those in Place des Landais on the seafront (such as the beach, ‘surf bars’ and fast-food restaurants), while the town centre remains a common space comprised of surf shops, designer and luxury clothing boutiques, art galleries and restaurants. This dual mode of apprehending space acts as if there were two towns within the town. The dual uses of the town and the representations linked to its different identifications — ‘bourgeois’ and ‘literary’ or ‘young’ and ‘surfy’ in a binary way — forcefully bring into play the generational aspect of the groups of social agents involved in this process. Competitive temporalities, uses of space, ‘free time’ activities and tastes contribute to defining Hossegor as a town with a dichotomous status.
In the 2000s, the municipality of Hossegor clearly faced a dilemma over potential policy to be defined for surfing on the one hand, and legitimate culture (literature, music and art) on the other. But in terms of the town’s social composition of residents, pinpointing the policy to be implemented was relatively unproblematic. Craftsmen, shopkeepers and business owners, in addition to professions requiring higher education, represent more than a third of the active population, a figure which is much higher than in the neighbouring municipalities in the south of the Landes coast (approximately one fifth) while residents over 60 years old are over-represented in Hossegor (two in five inhabitants in 2000 and more than half in 2017 according to INSEE). These are the features of a residential community where many people move in and stay for a long time after retirement.
Nevertheless, the municipality manages population growth through a restrictive policy in terms of development and new real estate. The municipality’s socio-demographic characteristics are therefore closely linked to its urban and architectural features. The time of completion of housing is a good indicator of the municipality’s tourist history. According to INSEE (in the early 2000s), only 46% of housing in Hossegor had been built after 1975, compared to nearly 60% in Seignosse and 58% in Capbreton. Similarly, 12% of homes in Hossegor were built before 1949, compared to 1.8% in Seignosse, for example. The population of the municipality has remained relatively stable since the 1999 census, after steadily rising from the 1920s (400 inhabitants in 1921) to the 1980s, after a sustainable tourist industry had taken shape. The social recruitment of tourists is also structured by the municipality’s social, historical and architectural features. The classification of municipalities in the Landes department (carried out annually by the Departmental council of tourism [Conseil départemental du tourisme], based on consumption per person, per day and in euros), according to the volume of tourist expenditure, underlines the fact that Hossegor ranks highly. But especially since the 1980s, the arrival of a new kind of tourist — the surfer — has changed the image of the seaside resort.
The French National audiovisual institute (Institut national de l’audiovisuel, INA) runs the website ‘Empreintes landaises’ featuring a number of clips from local TV news (from the 1970s to the 2000s) depicting Hossegor as holding a hegemonic position whenever professional competitions or the surfing economy and industry are concerned: see here. The organisation of Rip Curl Pro, an event on the World Surf League Championship Tour, in the 1980s and 1990s and Quiksilver Pro France from the early 2000s positioned Hossegor as a global hotspot for surfing. The number of businesses providing sporting services to a tourist clientèle (surfing lessons) has multiplied, despite political efforts for quantitative regulation, also contributes to Hossegor being associated with surfing.
Competition booklet, Rip Curl Pro Hossegor, August 1995. In addition to private sponsors, the partnership of the event at all territorial levels (i.e. the municipality, community of municipalities, department and region) attests to the political interest of developing such events, which are highly promising in terms of tourism and the economy (coll. Christophe Guibert).
Hossegor as a contested issue
During the summer period, the coast has become a place dominated by recreational life; tourist space is marked by an accumulation of types of clientèle with different, even socially opposing, dispositions (Guibert, 2006a). The Secretary General of Hossegor’s town hall agreed in 2001, relegating surfing to second place behind ‘ocean elegance’: ‘There really are two different phases. There’s ocean elegance, which is our slogan, and then there’s surfing. But those two images are not at all… I would even say they oppose one another! It’s even contradictory. You have ocean elegance and surfing. It’s contradictory. They don’t draw the same type of public at all, not in terms of age, people or way of life. These are two things that are essentially opposed. And sometimes, there are people… there are the anti-surfers and the pro-surfers. With noise at the Place des Landais, all that. There has to be a careful balance. In fact, all this… uh… surfing is not Hossegor, surfing is not Hossegor, it’s a component of Hossegor. This is not how the municipality sees it. Surfing is not Hossegor. In summer, surfers are not our clientèle.’ (Interview from 2001.)
Many of Hossegor’s residents, from the highest social classes, have been part of an association since 1991 under the Society of Owners of Soorts-Hossegor (Société des Propriétaires de Soorts-Hossegor, SPSH) a lobby group which aims to defend its own specific interests. The conditions for membership are family history and long-standing presence in the municipality, or property ownership. ‘After all, landlords are not insignificant from a tax point of view. We have a say,’ said one of the founding members and former president of the SPSH, Gilles de Chassy (a business executive in the wood industry and former president of the Southwest France Forestry Syndicate [Syndicat des Sylviculteurs du Sud-Ouest]), in the local press (Sud-Ouest, ‘Calme, luxe et volupté’, 15 July 1998). Problems related to security, cleanliness (graffiti), environment (forest and coastline), noise pollution (often linked to parties in ‘surf bars’) have been examined.
The association’s members view surfers negatively, as the following passage from the book by Gérard Maignan, a writer and SPSH member, attests: ‘The local population saw these gangly boys arrive with some apprehension. They parked near the sea in barely equipped minivans, with no discipline, little respect for their neighbours and only caring about their sole passion for surfing. Their presence has coincided with a rise in drugs, to which all seaside resorts seemed to be immune until now, and with drug dealers looking for new customers on the beaches.’ (Maignan, 2002). Efforts to produce a white paper by the commission ‘Prospective Hossegor’ under the SPSH illustrate the fact that the municipality will undoubtedly always have to take into account the association’s weight. The aim of this document was to set out avenues of reflection on topics prioritised by the SPSH up to 2020, namely planning, taxation, culture, security, the environment and heritage. Intended to be ‘bequeathed to the grandchildren’ of SPSH members, the white paper implies a belief that is summed up in the words of Gilles de Chassy: ‘We do not want the resort town to become commonplace’ (Sud-Ouest, 15 February 2005).
An ultimately ‘pacified’ resort town
If the social history of a tourist destination (in this case a seaside resort) is a rather classic example of power struggles and issues concerning the true definition of what the destination should be, Hossegor is no exception. However, past tensions are not the same as those of today. The economic stability and the number of employees (more than 500) in the surf economy contribute views that the surfing world is advantageous for the territory and its development. The dozen or so surf schools (associations and commercial enterprises) counted on the municipality’s beaches in 2021 also attest to a clear momentum. The social recruitment of a tourist clientèle who surf, comprised of generally upper social classes (considering the cost of classes or lessons at a surf school), contributes on the other hand to changing over time the spontaneous, off-the-cuff associations made with this sport with various forms of deviance.
Finally, Hossegor has managed to maintain tourism based on a prestigious cultural past by associating sports and contemporary leisure activities. The introduction of the Hossegor ‘Guide 2021’ for tourists is a good example of an international, socially plural, composite, seaside resort: ‘Come and spend an exciting holiday in the renowned resort of Hossegor, the surf capital of Europe. A natural destination with beautiful Landes beaches, powerful ocean waves and a charming marine lake. There is plenty to do for sport enthusiasts, including surfing, golf, cycling, water sports, walking and wellness activities. Hossegor also has a chic town centre with fine shops. Find lively restaurants and bars along the main beach. Hossegor promises thrilling, sport-filled and festive holidays!’ (https://www.hossegor.fr/)
- Bourdieu Pierre, 1979, La distinction, critique sociale du jugement, Paris, Minuit, 672 p.
- Guibert Christophe, 2006a, «Hossegor : “le surf” ou “l’élégance”? Une double identification territoriale», Annales de la Recherche Urbaine, «L’avancée en âge dans la ville», PUCA, n°100, p. 89-96.
- Guibert Christophe, 2006b, L’univers du surf et stratégies politiques en Aquitaine, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2006, 321 p.
- Maignan Gérard, 2002, Hossegor, l’élégance océane, Anglet, Atlantica, 110 p.