Monaco (Principality of)

Both a territory in Côte d’Azur and a microstate with economic development very different from that of neighbouring French municipalities, the Principality of Monaco, a hereditary, constitutional monarchy and permanent member of the United Nations since 1993, is a major tourist destination (Ill. 1) with 8 million visitors and 1.84 million overnight stays, 46% of which were in non-commercial accommodation, estimated in 2010 (Riviera Côte d’Azur regional tourism committee and Visit Monaco, 2010). Monte Carlo and the Place du Casino are world famous and part of the tourist archipelago of the world’s wealthiest, in addition to Gstaad and Saint-Barthélemy.

Ill. 1. The Principality of Monaco (© Jean-Christophe Gay, 2013)

The birth of tourism and Monte Carlo

The Grimaldi family has ruled Monaco since the 14th century. In 1793, the principality was annexed by France, but became sovereign again in 1814. It was destitute at the time, as revealed by Mercier Dupaty’s text, written in 1785: ‘This is the principality of Monaco. As no one should be scorned, one should pay a visit. We landed in the port. […] Two or three streets on steep rocks, 800 destitute people starving, a dilapidated castle […]; a few orange trees, a few olive trees, a few mulberry trees scattered over a few acres of land, which too are scattered over the rocks. This is about all there is to Monaco. The destitution there is extreme.’ (Lettres sur l’Italie en 1785, Tours, Mame et Cie, 1837). In 1848, the towns of Menton and Roquebrune seceded and became part of France in 1861. The principality thus lost more than nine tenths of its territory and five sixths of its population. It was reduced to a poor and isolated small town with a population of 1,200.

Fifty years later, it has a population of more than 19,000. In 1856, tourism development in Monaco began to take shape. The aim was to turn it into a resort town, with thermal spas, hotels, theatres and a casino. After some trial and error (Vigarello, 2013), spa activity reached its prime with Thermes Valentia, an establishment for electro and hydrotherapy, which opened on the harbour, in La Condamine, in 1895, but closed in 1904. It was succeeded by Les Bains du Larvotto, which did not have the same therapeutic function, at a time when bathing in the sea was beginning to take on a hedonic and playful dimension, taking the place of bains à la lame (breaker baths). It was not until 1995 and the opening of Thermes Marins Monte Carlo that spa-going picked back up in Monaco, but the focus on medicine shifted to mental health with rest and self-care (Vigarello, 2013).

The microstate was transformed with the creation of ‘Société des bains de mer et du cercle des étrangers de Monaco’ (SBM) in 1863 by François Blanc (1806-1877), a French businessman,  In return for a gambling monopoly, SBM undertook to provide certain public services (street lighting and maintenance, water and gas distribution, an official newspaper, transport by land and sea with Nice and Menton, etc.). The location chosen for the new resort was the rocky plateau of Spélugues, meaning ‘caves’, which was renamed in 1866 with the more resonant and exotic name ‘Monte-Carl’ (Mont-Charles) in honour of the sovereign prince Charles III. On this plateau, once covered with olive and citrus trees, a new tourist resort was built. Next to the casino, the Hôtel de Paris was inaugurated in 1864. It was designed by the architect Dutrou and modelled after the Grand Hôtel on Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. In 1878, the first casino was demolished to make way for a new one and an opera house, designed by Charles Garnier, the architect who had designed the Paris Opera. In 1868, the PLM railway line reached the principality, making it much more accessible than before. A railway station was built at the foot of the new neighbourhood. In 1869, Prince Charles III exempted the principality’s residents from land, income and property taxes as well as patents. Foreigners — mainly French and Italian — settled there in large numbers. In 1908, native residents of Monaco represented only 8% of the total population.

By playing a role in the principality’s infrastructure and economic development, with ownership of the Casino and first-class hotels, SBM became a genuine state within the State. Aristotle Onassis became the main shareholder of SBM in the early 1950s and injected a lot of money into a lethargic principality. However, the interests of Onassis and the principality diverged and the State took back control of SBM in 1967. The history of SBM is therefore closely linked with the contemporary history of Monaco.

Today, SBM continues to play a key role. Its land holdings are considerable, as it owns one thirteenth of Monaco’s land, including Place du Casino. It possesses the two most prestigious hotels, Hôtel de Paris and Hôtel Hermitage, in addition to the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel and Resort, four casinos including Casino de Monte-Carlo, four spas including Les Thermes Marins de Monte-Carlo, Jimmy’z nightclub, 33 restaurants, including the most renowned, the Louis XV-Alain Ducasse, the opera, etc. In France, it owns the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel, the Monte-Carlo Country Club and the Monte-Carlo Golf Club. SBM is the leading private tourism company in Côte d’Azur and Monaco’s largest employer with a workforce of nearly 4,000, i.e. around 7% of Monaco’s total workforce.

Monaco beyond Monte Carlo

Monaco was long confused with Monte Carlo, a mecca for tourism and gambling. (A method for calculating probability was named after Monte Carlo.) Around Place du Casino, which was completely renovated in 2020 (ill. 2), the casino, Sporting d’Hiver, which was demolished in 2015 and replaced by One Monte-Carlo, which includes luxury shops and flats, Hôtel de Paris and Café de Paris, capture attention.

Ill. 2. Place du Casino today (© Jean-Christophe Gay, 2020)

But Monaco is no longer just Monte Carlo. The waning use of the synecdoche ‘Monte Carlo’ for the microstate proves it, even if sometimes the space is negated. Monaco’s summer turnaround impacted the French municipality of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. The Monte-Carlo Beach opened in 1929, two kilometres from Monte Carlo, for what was considered at the time to be a trend — summer sea bathing (Ill. 3). The principality hired the services of the American columnist Elsa Maxwell (1883-1963), who seems to have made a name for the Venice Lido, to conceive of and promote the idea of summertime Monte Carlo and the ‘Cité de la Mer’ (Staggs, 2012, p. 153-158), inaugurated in 1931, which offered numerous seaside and water sport facilities, in addition to the Monte-Carlo Country Club.

Ill. 3. Monte-Carlo Beach in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin (© J.-Ch. Gay, 2018)

Prince Rainier asserted in 1962: ‘When I succeeded my grandfather, I set myself two objectives. First, to destroy the myth that this country lives on the misfortune of a few, i.e. the casino, and second, to ensure that tourism is no longer our only source of income’ (quoted by Toulier, p. 559). The authorities therefore encouraged economic diversification, notably with the construction and industrialisation of the Fontvieille harbour.

Furthermore, the name ‘Monaco’ was systematically promoted at the expense of ‘Monte Carlo’, one of the four quartiers of Monaco, in addition to Condamine, Fontvieille and Monaco-Ville (nicknamed the Rock). To the north of Place du Casino, urbanisation was strong, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Artificial beaches were built (Larvotto), skyscrapers sprang up to combat the cramped conditions, and infrastructure such as the wastewater treatment plant, roads and the railway was built underground. The railway tunnel was completed in 1999 with the opening of the underground station.

The Larvotto seaside resort was completely remodelled by Renzo Piano in 2021. Tunnelling the northern part of the railway line across Monaco in 1964 proved beneficial for the neighbourhood. It also led to the demise of the Monte Carlo station and a profound reorganisation of this part of the principality (opening of large traffic lanes, construction of embankments with rubble, etc.).

Currently, near Grimaldi Forum, a conference and congress centre inaugurated in 2000, construction is underway on a six-hectare site for a port, offices and flats (Ill. 4). Monaco is accustomed to such projects, which have significantly changed the landscape. The coastline has been almost entirely developed to increase the area from 150 to over 200 hectares. Between 1958 and 1967, nine hectares were gained thanks to the Portier, Larvotto and Sporting embankments. The Fontvieille embankment (22 hectares) was built between 1966 and 1973. In 2002, a 352-metre-long semi-floating dyke was attached to an embankment extending the Rock. This infrastructure turned Monaco into a cruise port.

Ill. 4. The construction site of the future eco-neighbourhood of Portier Cove in September 2021 (© J.-Ch. Gay, 2021)

These maritime conquests enabled Monaco’s economic development. The number of jobs continues to grow. There were 32,000 in 1996 and 53,000 in 2019, more than the number of inhabitants (39,000 in 2021). The vast majority are French or Italian cross-border workers. Accommodation and catering, with 9.1% of GDP, represented 15.3% of the workforce in 2019, compared with 14.8% in construction and manufacturing, mainly in high added value sectors (cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, plastics, automotive equipment, etc.), and 7.5% for financial activities.

Only the Rock seems to be spared from the unbridled urbanisation and concrete (Ill. 5). It was here that in the 13th century the Genoese built a castle which later became the Prince’s Palace, the seat of executive power. On the few hectares of this fortified land, one can also find the Ministry of State and all other powers — the legislature in the National Council, the judicial in the Palais de Justice, the religious in the cathedral and the communal in the town hall. This key location in the eyes of native Monaco residents was not to be handled the same way as other parts of the microstate. Various town planning ordinances in 1959 and 1966 resulted in the safeguarding of its traditional style; new developments were prohibited and traffic was restricted.

These measures were also dictated by the fact that the Rock became a major tourist site after Rainier’s marriage to Grace Kelly in 1956. This high-profile royal union was followed by the births of Their Serene Highnesses Caroline (1957), Albert (1958) and Stéphanie (1965), putting the family’s daily life in the spotlight. The palace perched on the cliffs soon turned into an enchanted castle — a real, modern-day fairy tale.

The appeal of this quartier, visited by about four million people every year, is boosted by the presence of the Oceanographic Museum, which evokes the fantastic world of Jules Verne. It is by far the most visited museum in Côte d’Azur in terms of paid admissions; the second most popular, Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, has five times fewer visitors. However, visitor numbers have been declining for 25 years (656,000 in 2019 compared to over 900,000 until 1993), despite new attractions.

Ill. 5. The Rock of Monaco (© J.-Ch. Gay, 2008)

The layers of shelter, which explains this spatial organisation, is worth noting (Gay, 1996). The first shelter, related to climate, is not specific to Monaco but applies to the whole of Côte d’Azur, unlike the second, which is fiscal, and which only concerns Monaco. Finally, the preservation of its historic centre, the Rock, adds another shelter, in this case urban, to this exceptional land.

The features of a prestigious tourist resort

Excellent accessibility

The development of the casino was undoubtedly linked to the arrival of the railway, which reduced the isolation of this unproductive land situated at the foot of a steep slope. In the age of the automobile and aeroplane, Monaco’s authorities kept the pace. Fearing that part of the flow of tourists would desert them, they never stopped trying to improve links with the A8 motorway and the Nice-Côte d’Azur Airport.

To link it to Monaco, a modern heliport was built in 1981 on Fontvieille. This helicopter route has become the most used in France and one of the first in the world. It makes Monaco seven minutes away from the international airport. Road access significantly improved with the opening of several tunnels, partly or wholly on French territory and overwhelmingly funded by the microstate: in 1992 between the A8 motorway and Moyenne Corniche (A800 access road), in 1994, between the latter and Monaco, in 2016 between Fontvieille and Moyenne Corniche.

High security

Monaco is a city for the ultra-wealthy. Similar to Zug, Switzerland, billionaires choose to live in Monaco for tax reasons. Despite the concentration of wealth unlike anywhere else in the world, Monaco is remarkably tranquil. There are very few crimes and offences; armed robbery and homicide are extremely rare. This is no coincidence. The authorities have spared no expense to ensure maximum security for its affluent guests. Monaco’s police force employs 580 officers (15 police officers/1,000 inhabitants compared with 3.3 in France). Surveillance cameras are ubiquitous. Panhandling and wearing only a swimsuit around town are not allowed.

This is the price one pays to ostensibly stroll around Monte Carlo dripping with diamonds and fur without fear. This creates an urbanity that is free from danger, one which strives to imitate the largest cities in terms of the entertainment it offers.

Brilliant, lasting entertainment

Throughout the year, events are held for high society on holiday: dinner and dancing at the casino cabaret, exhibitions, classical concerts and operas, ballets, an international tennis tournament, Formula 1 Grand Prix, summer performances by the biggest variety stars in the Monte-Carlo Sporting Club’s Salle des Étoiles, the Rose Ball and the Monaco Red Cross gala, the pinnacle of Monaco’s high society. When people think of Monaco, they usually think of glamour, Formula 1 and tax benefits. A new contemporary art fair, Art Monte-Carlo — an offshoot of Art Geneva — was launched in 2016. This non-exhaustive list reveals the social practices and customs of this society for whom the splendours of the principality make it one of the last refuges of a certain art de vivre.

The most famous casino in the world

The contemporary history of the microstate is linked to its casino. SBM, which has a monopoly on this activity, has adapted to demand by offering an increasing number of American games (e.g., craps, blackjack, American roulette) and Asian games (e.g., Pai gow poker), by multiplying the number of automatic machines and gaming rooms.

Legendary hotels

Hôtel de Paris and Hôtel Hermitage have been among the jewels of the principality since the Belle Époque,  They are also among the most famous luxury hotels in the world and were renovated and expanded for a clientèle with very high standards. The cellar of the Hôtel de Paris is one of the most famous in the world. In 2019, Monaco had 2,354 hotel rooms, of which 22% were five-star and 59% four-star, with a total of 930,000 overnight stays and an average length of stay of 2.46 days. The annual occupancy rate was 65.9%, ranging from 41.7% in December to 84.2% in August.

The promotion of virtuous tourism practices

There are no major tourist destinations today without dialogue around responsible and sustainable tourism. The Principality of Monaco’s white paper on sustainable tourism, presented in 2021, is clear proof of this. The microstate claims to be at the forefront of sustainable development and the environment, despite a coastline which is completely artificial.

Monaco is an exemplary case of a hyperlocation with a strong tourist dimension. Building on Michel Lussault’s reflections on the issue (2017), Monaco appears to be the archetype of these places with a high concentration of people, strong interactions, strong diversity and where social practices are intense. Native Monaco residents represent only 22% of the population and 139 nationalities are present. It is a thrilling experience for visitors, primarily due to the proximity to wealth. The layout of Monte Carlo encourages this complicity between the excursionist-voyeur and the tourist-exhibitionist. Throughout the year, exceptional events, such as the Monaco Yacht Show (ill. 6), held in September, draw visitors from all over the world. Cultural and sporting events put Monaco in the international spotlight several times a year.

Ill. 6. Port Hercule during the Monaco Yacht Show (© J.-Ch. Gay, 2021)

Jean-Christophe Gay


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