From a common noun to a geographical name and then to a notion – an analysis of the trajectory of this term reveals both a part of the history of tourism, by the play of analogies and the role model that certain places can become, in this case the French Riviera, and by the paradigm shifts in the scientific approach to tourism.

The trajectory of a word

In medieval French, the terms rive (bank), rivage (shore) and rivière (river) derive from the Latin riparia, itself deriving from the adjective riparius (that inhabits the banks of rivers).  The Italian riviera, designating a river, is borrowed from French giving the geographical term Riviera to name the coast of Genoa between La Spezia and Nice (Ill. 1). This geographical name, describing most of the coastline of the Gulf of Genoa, has become a geographical concept found in some dictionaries on the subject, through the process of duplication and dissemination of the term. In Pierre George’s dictionary, it is defined as follows: “Common noun derived from the geographical name of the Italian shores of the Gulf of Genoa and designating a coast sheltered from bad weather suitable for delicate crops and tourism” (George, 1974, p. 373). For Roger Brunet, it is a “type of tourist coast dominated by affluent residences, densely occupied, with a sharp relief, numerous capes and bays, a climate considered as enchanting” (1992, p.395).

Ill. 1. Cape Martin (Roquebrune-Cap-Martin) © J.-Ch. Gay, 2013

The Riviera straddles three countries: Italy, France and the Principality of Monaco. The Italian Riviera is divided into two subsets: the Riviera di Ponente, west of Genoa, which is itself subdivided into the Riviera delle Palme and the Riviera dei Fiori (Ill. 2); the Riviera di Levante, east of Genoa. There is nothing of the sort on the French side. However, the appearance in 1887, under the pen of the lawyer, man of letters, high ranking official and dandy Stéphen Liégeard (1830-1925), of the appellation “Cote d’Azur”, to describe a thin coastal strip going roughly from Cassis to San Remo, would quickly prevail over “Riviera”, at least in the French-speaking world. In the English-speaking world, “French Riviera” has remained the most common geographical name.

Ill. 2. San Remo Station on the Riviera dei Fiori (Liguria) © J.-Ch. Gay, 2017

Rivieras across the world

The French Riviera would serve as a model throughout the world, given the quality of the winter towns that emerged, with their intense social life and their specific urban fabric (Violier, Duhamel, Gay and Mondou, 2021). A multitude of tourist places boast a resemblance to the Riviera calling themselves “riviera”. This is an old promotional strategy dating back to the 19th century that has tended to spread and increasingly include places distant and different from the eponymous Riviera. The borrowing of the concept from these coastal regions is based on a series of analogies that we have grouped into three categories: climatic, topographical and societal (Ill. 3). Firstly, the Riviera enjoys a sheltered climate, shielding it from harsh winter conditions, especially the mistral, a cold and violent north wind that blows in Provence. Secondly its topography, that is to say the south-facing slope falling into the sea is a major factor in understanding this shelter effect. This mountainous backdrop is also a valued landscape. Finally, the existence of a population with a taste for holiday resorts, which has developed a territory perfectly suited to its image of opulence and concern for ornamentation, with a monumental and ostentatious architecture, leads to a third analogy that can be described as societal.

This toponymic trend reflected the movement of people and ideas. European elites in the 19th century moved from one coastline to another. Within this dominant, cosmopolitan and highly mobile class, information circulated quickly. Frequenting different places helped it maintain its social capital. North or South American elites would cross the Atlantic Ocean every winter to go to Europe. Architects John Carrère and Thomas Hastings, who designed the Ponce de Leon and Alcazar hotels in St Augustine (Braden, 2002, p.148), entitled their book Florida, the American Rivièra (sic) published in New York by Gilliss brothers & Turnure in 1887, as they had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts (school of fine arts) in Paris and surely knew Nice and the French Riviera. Some, having multiple residences, moved from one riviera to another, like Robert Smith who had a castle in Nice and Torquay, on the “English Riviera”. Some places were linked up, such as San Remo and Atami, on the Izu peninsula, the Japanese Riviera, which have been twinned since 1976. In San Remo, there is a Japanese garden in the middle of the Ormond Garden in honour of this twinning, and in Atami there is a “San Remo Park”. In the table below (ill. 3), we classified a number of Rivieras according to their degree of resemblance to the French Riviera.

Ill. 3. Gradation in the similarity of some Rivieras (realization: Jean-Christophe Gay)

Mimetic Rivieras

On this non-exhaustive list, four rivierias have strong similarities with the French Riviera, although their tourism and climatic, topographical and societal characteristics are not exactly identical. Since their beginnings, the tourist coasts around Opatija, Yalta and Sochi have been described as the “Austrian Riviera” (Rapp, Rapp-Wimberger, 2013), the “Crimean Riviera” and the “Caucasian Riviera” respectively. Opatija was intended to be “another Nice” and the Soviets willingly presented Yalta as the “Red Nice”.

The Habsburgs of Austria enjoyed their Istrian coasts, with Portoroz (Slovenia) and Dalmatian coasts, with Opatija (Croatia), which then became a famous tourist spot, located at the foot of Carso or Karst, a high plateau of the Dinaric Alps that protected it from the bora, a northerly wind blowing over the Adriatic Sea that is violent and icy in winter, particularly turbulent and strong over Trieste and the Kvarner Gulf. Opatija has the strongest resemblance to the Riviera due to its topography, its climate and the society that created it. In 1860, Empress Maria-Anna, wife of former Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria, lived there. In the early 1880s, Frederich Schüller, general manager of the Südbahngesellschaft railway company that has served Opatija since 1873, decided to develop tourism there. This company bought Villa Angiolina and launched a real estate programme. Opatija was rapidly transformed with the construction of villas and hotels, targeting important personalities (Ill. 4). The decline of this resort, one of the most chic of the Belle Époque, was due to the geopolitical upheavals in the Balkans from 1914.

Ill. 4. Hotel Kvarner in Opatija (Croatia) built during the Belle Époque © J.-Ch. Gay, 2007

Yalta, nestled on the southern slope of the Crimean Mountains, literally falling into the sea and culminating at over 1,500 meters above sea level, was discovered in 1810-1820 by the Russian elite. In 1860, the Romanovs bought the Livadian estate in the suburbs of Yalta. Like Opatija, seasonal stays by the high aristocracy, in this case the Tsar’s family, and later the Soviet hierarchs, to enjoy the mild climate, combined with the advice of influential doctors praising the salutary quality of the air, guaranteed the success of this coast. Further east, at the foot of the Caucasus, it was the father of modern potholing, Edouard-Alfred Martel (1859-1938) who named this coastline the “Caucasus Riviera”, the title of his travelogue on this region. The Vaud Riviera, which emerged at the end of the 19th century, although a lakeside riveria, has strong resemblance to the Riviera. Vevey and Montreux are very chic resorts that enjoy an exceptional setting. It is the most famous Alpine riviera.

Exotic rivieras

Exotic Rivieras have strong differences with the Riviera. For some, the analogy is only social, such as on the Baltic Sea Jurmala, the Latvian riviera, or Heringsdorf (Germany), the “Nice of the Baltic” on the coast of the “German Riviera”, where this name is used to highlight the quality of the people who frequent them, and therefore the amenities available there, even though the climate and the topography do not have much in common with the Riviera. The “English Riviera” was born in the Victorian era, when the relatively mild climate of Cornwall, in the British Isles, was compared to that of the French Riviera, with the resort of Torquay being the main beneficiary. The Riviera Romagnola is compared to Liguria, its competitor (Biagini, 1990).

Across the Atlantic, Florida became a major wintering haven for Northeastern residents, spurred by businessmen Henry Plant (1819-1899) and Henry Flagler (1830-1913). The latter named the east coast of Florida the American Riviera to attract the rich Americans who used to go to the French Riviera every winter (Braden, 2002). The development of tourism in Palm Beach in Miami is the work of the latter. He turned Palm Beach into a winter resort in 1890 and Miami at the very end of this century. He reinforced the importance of Saint Augustine with the opening in 1887 of the Ponce de Leon Hotel, a Spanish Renaissance style hotel with 450 rooms. He built the Royal Poincinia Hotel in Palm Beach, which had 500 rooms when it opened in 1894.

To the west of the peninsula it is Plant who developed health resorts following on the railway lines and hotels that he built. Tampa Bay Hotel, a neo-Moorish style hotel, features 511 rooms. With the opening of the Royal Palm, Miami quickly became a resort for very affluent winterers and it is interesting to note that it was very soon compared to the “famous resorts of Southern Europe”. By preventing rich Americans from going to the French Riviera in winter, World War I was a boon for Miami, which asserted itself as the American Riviera.

On the Californian side, immigration to Los Angeles from the 1870s was linked to the much-vaunted quality of its air and its winter climate, leading to the opening in 1888 of the largest resort of the time in San Diego, the del Coronado Hotel. Santa Barbara emerged as the Californian riviera at the end of the 19th century. Reference was made to the sophistication and elegance of the French Riviera when, in the 1920s, the “Hollywood Riviera” began to emerge (Devenir, 2020, p. 1920).

In Japan, the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1872 and the creation of weekends gave birth to the holiday culture. Officials would go on holiday and public schools introduced 30 days of holidays in summer. While Europeans preferred the mountains in hill stations (Kariuzawa, Nikko, etc.), Japanese, including many government dignitaries, settled by the sea. The Izu peninsula was presented as early as 1910 as the “Riviera of Japan”.

Most of these rivieras were born at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, when the aura of the French Riviera was at its peak. A few emerged later, which goes to prove the reputation that the Riviera continues to have. In Cambodia, Kep-sur-Mer, created under French colonisation, became the Cambodian riviera or the Khmer riviera under Sihanouk, from 1955 to the early 1970s. The “Mayan Riviera” in Yucatan (Mexico) is a commercial name adopted in 1997 by the government.

It is also worth noting that in the context of the recent formation of inter-municipal associations in France, two entities have adopted the rewarding name of Riviera: the Communauté d’agglomération de la Riviera française (French Riviera conurbation community or CARF) in Menton, and the Communauté d’agglomération la Riviera du Levant (Levant Riviera conurbation community or CARL) in Guadeloupe, which is on the very touristy Southern coast of Grande-Terre, with the localities of Gosier or Sainte-Anne. Lastly, Nice Sophia Antipolis University was renamed Cote d’Azur University in 2020 (Ill. 5).

Ill. 5. Logo of the Cote d’Azur University

The comeback of a notion

In the early 2000s, the notion of riviera seemed to have run its course, referring to a geography largely influenced by a determinism, as shown by the definition of Pierre George (cf. supra), whereby climate determines the functions. From this theoretical conception came the reasons why tourism was developed in these territories.

Roger Brunet, is in midstream, with a functional and landscape-based definition, reluctant to move away from climatic determinism by explaining his perception. It is most revealing that in the work of Philippe Duhamel and Philippe Violier on coastlines (2009), there is no question of this notion at any time.

The geohistorical approach has brought it back to the forefront, notably through the concept of moment in place, developed by the MIT team (2005), that highlights the relationship between tourist sites. Thus, the moment in place of the Riviera, which began in Nice at the end of the 18th century, when wintering was invented and the winter city was born, reached its peak in the second half of the 19th century, when this coastline became a reference for the whole world. The shift in seasonality, which took place in the 1920s in Juan-les-Pins (Bottaro et al., 2013), and which led to the formation of a new Riviera, summer-based and centred on swimming and sun tanning, is the result of social innovations in the Pacific Ocean, and more specifically in Hawaii. That is where a new system of appreciation of climate and landscapes, and of physical attractiveness took shape in the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the following century.

The Riviera is one of the milestones in the worldwide dissemination of tourist practices and the multiplication of tourist sites. The heuristic power of this notion is therefore to be explored.

Jean-Christophe GAY


  • Biagini Emilio, 1990, La Riviera di Romagna. Sviluppo di un sistema regionale turistico. Bologne, Pàtron Ed, 177 p.
  • Bottaro Alain et al. 2013, Trois Siècles de tourisme dans les Alpes-Maritimes. Milan, Conseil général des Alpes-Maritimes et Silvana Editoriale, 213 p.
  • Braden Susan R., 2002, The Architecture of Leisure. The Florida Resorts Hotels of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant. Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 456 p.
  • Brunet Roger, 1992, Les Mots de la géographie. Paris, La Documentation française, 470 p.
  • Devienne Elsa, 2020, La Ruée vers le sable. Une histoire environnementale des plages de Los Angeles au XXe siècle. Paris, Éditions de la Sorbonne, 288 p.
  • Duhamel Philippe et Violier Philippe, 2009, Tourisme et littoral: un enjeu du monde. Paris, Belin, 192 p.
  • Équipe MIT, 2005, Tourismes 2. Moments de lieux. Paris, Belin, 349 p.
  • Gay Jean-Christophe et Decroly Jean-Michel, 2018, «Les logiques de la diffusion du tourisme dans le monde: une approche géohistorique», L’Espace géographique, n° 2, p. 102-120, en ligne.
  • George Pierre, 1974, Dictionnaire de la géographie. Paris, PUF, 451 p.
  • Liégeard Stéphen, 1887, La Côte d’Azur. Paris, Maison Quantin, 430 p.
  • Martel E.-A. 1908, La Côte d’Azur russe (Riviéra du Caucase). Paris, Delagrave, 358 p.
  • Rapp Christian et Rapp-Wimberger Nadia, 2013, Österreichische Riviera. Wien Entdeckt das Meer. Vienne, Wien Museum-Czernin Verlag, 304 p.
  • Violier Philippe, Duhamel Philippe, Gay Jean-Christophe et Mondou Véronique, 2021, Le Tourisme en France 2, approche régionale, Londres, ISTE, 221 p.