A small town of 30,000 inhabitants on the Mediterranean coast, Menton became a tourist destination in the mid-19th century when it was discovered by British tourists who visited during the winter months. The two world wars and the evolution of tourist practices have profoundly transformed tourism in Menton, while its functions are diversified by the wealthy influence of the Principality of Monaco.

Early tourism development

A former Monégasque town that revolted against Prince Florestan in 1848, it was Sardinian for only twelve years before being attached to France in 1860, along with the County of Nice.

Dr James Henry Bennet (1816-1891) spent 20 winters in Menton starting in 1859. He put the winter town on the map by praising its climate as exceptional (Ghersi, 2011), particularly for Côte d’Azur. Dr Brown stated in 1869: ‘About the climate of Menton […], it is difficult to dispute that it is the mildest of all the places in southern Europe for the winter season.’ In Géographie universelle, Elisée Reclus declared it to be the ‘pearl of France’. Tourism began to develop in the 1850s, with 300 families wintering there in 1862. The process accelerated with the arrival of the railway in 1869.

The town was under construction for more than two decades, building hotels and boarding houses in the 1880s (there were more than 80 in 1913), villas, a port, a railway station, roads, sewage systems, gardens, etc. Among the Brits who stayed in Menton were Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Carlyle and William Webb Ellis. Ellis, who is claimed to have invented rugby, is buried in Menton (Ill. 1).

The town grew from a population of 4,900 in 1866 to 18,000 in 1911. The tourist season in this international resort town, emblematic of the Riviera, begins in October and ends in May. Some 20,000 tourists stayed in hotels and boarding houses annually before World War I. The sleepy Monégasque town turned into a touristified city with an economy based on tourism.

Ill. 1. The tomb of William Webb Ellis (© J.-Ch. Gay, 2021)

A time of upheaval

The interwar period would be a period of profound change, with peak tourist season shifting from winter to summer and the economic downturn that began in the United States in 1929. Winter became the off season, which explains why the Fête du Citron (Lemon Festival), created in 1931, was held at the end of winter to boost visitor numbers.

Hotels began to close, unprepared for a younger, less affluent clientèle in search of sea bathing and sun. Of some thirty exceptional establishments, few survived World War II. The battles that raged in 1940 and 1944 and looting during the Italian occupation caused great damage.

The majority of hotels were converted, a decade after Nice, into commonhold properties, with rooms turned into flats. Social welfare organisations and pension providers also took over some hotels.

A new momentum

In 1965, the municipality built Sablettes beach, a stone’s throw from old town, which significantly increased Menton’s seaside offering. Two years later, Menton-Garavan marina opened (Ill. 2).

Ill. 2. The old town, Sablettes beach and the marina in Menton (© J.-Ch. Gay, 2018)

The proximity of the Principality of Monaco, located a few kilometres away, proved advantageous for tourism. This influence was particularly notable during major events organised in the microstate, with fully booked commercial accommodation (1,100 hotel rooms and more than 1,000 beds in tourist residences and holiday villages).

The practices of discovery and the increase in mobility also explain the current attraction for heritage left by tourism in the Belle Époque, with its palaces and gardens (e.g., Val Rameh, Maria Serena, Fontana Rosa, Serres de la Madone), for which the city is famous (Ill. 3). In addition to this mise en abyme of tourism, there is the old town and promotion of lemons. Such assets enabled it to obtain the title of Ville d’art et d’histoire (City of art and history) in 1991.

Ill. 3. The former Hôtel Impérial and garden (© J.-Ch. Gay, 2008)

Today, Menton is a tourist town not a touristified town as it was a century ago. In the shadow of the Principality of Monaco, which has created 1,000 jobs per year over the last 25 years, the town has become a suburb of the microstate, as nearly one out of two Menton working professionals work in Monaco, although a tense and expensive property market prevent them from moving there.

Only 9% of housing is council housing in Menton, which means that the town does not meet the objectives of the French law on urban solidarity and renewal (solidarité et au renouvellement urbains, SRU) and must pay financial penalties. Buildable land is scarce and uneven. Tourism contributes to these difficult circumstances; in 2018, second homes, numbering 12,500, accounted for 42.9% of all housing,

which is largely in the hands of Italian owners who drive the local property market and make it harder for working professionals to access housing. Due to these serious housing issues, Menton has been identified as a zone tendue (‘tense zone’), i.e. an area with known property shortages, with additional taxes of 30% on second homes.

Jean-Christophe Gay


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