Among tourist locations, resorts occupy a place of choice, sometimes overplayed actually: it is common practice to uses the term “resort” for any place frequented by tourists (Vlès, 1999). And yet among these, resort towns represent a special case within the typology of tourist destinations.
An original juxtaposition
Resort towns are created by a resort adjoining a town, just like a district. While, strictly speaking, resorts were totally invented from scratch by tourists, a resort town already has a town on the site itself. This particularity stems from the fact that while globally the coasts are additional space for society, ports can be found here and there along the coasts. Therefore, the economy is diversified including fishing and maritime trade. Similarly, while there is indeed a tourist season, in the sense that tourists are not present all year round, but mostly come in the summer, the other functions give life to the town throughout the year.
Some of the many examples include: Boulogne-sur-Mer, Dieppe, Les Sables d’Olonne, Nice and Rio. Their early start in tourism is attributable to their ease of access from one or more historical towns nearby. Boulogne-sur-Mer can thus be proud to house a sea bathing establishment, created by an Englishman in 1786. In Les Sables d’Olonne too, bathers are reported as early as 1816, more because they had jumped into the water in their birthday suit, than because their behaviour was strange in that environment.
The difference with the tourist town comes from the fact that tourists settle in a new space adjoining Les Sables d’Olonne (Ill. 1), or as close as possible to the beach, like in Dieppe (Ill. 2) which hosted a sea bathing establishment in 1812, while in the tourist town tourism enlivens the city centre. In the Vendée sub-prefecture, the tourism settlement, with its magnificent villas (Ill. 3), stands out clearly from the old town tightly packed along its harbour with small fishermen’s houses and narrow streets (Ill. 4). Rue de l’Enfer is in fact listed in the Guinness World Records as the narrowest street in the world. This seaside area is positioned at the border of the town, so much so that historically tourists would go to the town for the thrill of seeing the natives perceived as savages.
Ill. 1. On the left, the map of Les Sables d’Olonne in the early 19th century, shows that the town surrounds the port on its southern flank, while the buildings facing the sea are not very dense and are set back from the coast line. On the left, in 1950, the sea-facing tourist habitat (source: Géorportail, only the graphic scale is relevant). Ill. 2. On the left, in the mid-19th century, the town already hosted a sea bathing establishment, but ramparts separate the town from the beach. On the right, the map of 1950 highlights a neighbourhood adjoining the town but different due to its spacious development, its promenades and its sea-facing view (source: Géorportail, only the graphic scale is relevant).
Towards a tourist town
With the development of tourism and the diversification of practices giving rise to increasingly varied combinations, the place evolved into a tourist town, in the sense that tourists regularly frequent the place as a whole. They are no longer confined to the seaside area or satisfied with just a few trips to town.
Today, tourism is practised in the town of Les Sables d’Olonne. Monuments, the Sainte-Croix Abbey, which houses the works of the painter Gaston Chaissac, or even entire areas, are part of the discovery of the town, like the waterfront at the port consisting essentially of a row of restaurants and shops facing the basins, and from where tourists can board for sea trips. The waterfront has undergone, as elsewhere, a dynamic urbanisation, due to the sustained high level of attendance. Buildings have replaced the villas of the 1930s and those that have survived today contribute to the tourist function following their patrimonialisation (Ill. 5 and 6). Thus, a place popular for sea bathing is being diversified through discovery.
Rio de Janeiro is another world-famous example. The city, which was the capital of Brazil, has turned in on the State of the same name. The place, besides its exceptional location dotted with “sugar loaves” and dominated by Corcovado, is particularly known, for its beaches and the seaside areas of Pocacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, while the historic centre, of small size, is not much visited.
Ill. 3. Les Sables d’Olonne, seafront view, villas that have avoided destruction and are now patrimonialised (Cl. Philippe Violier, 5 November 2016). Ill. 4. Les Sables d’Olonne, close-knit houses of the area adjoining the port, in the background La Chaume, also populated by fishermen in the past (Cl. Philippe Violier, 6 February 2020). Ill. 5. Les Sables d’Olonne, seafront view, lectern facing a row of villas (Cl. Ph. Violier, 5 November 2016) Ill. 6. Les Sables d’Olonne, seafront view, close-up of the lectern facing a row of villas (cl. Philippe Violier, 5 November 2016)