The term “seasonality” refers to the distribution of tourists over the year in a given place or space. The question was addressed very effectively by Christophe Terrier (2006) in his approach based on the current population. The analysis was carried out at the departmental level and consisted in measuring inhabitant numbers in a given month. These are obtained by subtracting the number of persons who have left and adding the number of persons who have come. However, it is not specifically about tourism, but about mobility.

Temporality dictated by practices

Seasonality reflects the practices in place. In today’s world, tourist destinations on the coast experience a summer seasonality linked to the social codification that associates tanning with hot baths as arguments of rest or self-care. This distribution in time is also associated with certain preferred destinations, such as the warmer coasts of the south, and especially the French Riviera. However, before the 1920s, in the heydays of cold baths and the appeal of white skin, the high season was in spring and summer on the northern coasts (Toulier, 2015) and in winter in the Mediterranean. In France, Deauville and Trouville were as busy as Nice, but in different seasons.

In the high mountains, tourist attendance was spread over two periods: in winter for snowsports, and in summer for hiking and other physical activities, enjoyment of the scenery and discovery. The lower altitude regions, such as tourist countryside, were rather lively in the summer. Before the invention of skiing and its dissemination from 1914, the preferred season was summer in the mountains. The winter sports season only developed in the 1860s in Saint-Moritz (MIT, 2005).

For cities, the situation was more complex. The most visited cities, where attendance is underpinned by the presence of various establishments, a vast and significant heritage built up over the centuries, such as modern buildings, cultural events, etc., receive temporary inhabitants practically all year round. In others, particularly known for a flagship event, seasonality is marked by a peak of attendance in relation to that event. One example is “Le voyage à Nantes” that livens up this city of the Loire region in summer. Other cities, such as Strasbourg, have a mixed profile with levels of attendance on the rise during the famous Christmas market, but remaining high the rest of the year.

In recent decades, public policies have aimed to extend the attendance period to places that are deemed to be affected by an imbalance. The peak season is extended or the “shoulder season” (just before and just after the peak season) developed in some places through the creation of events, and in other places through installations intended to liven up the place during the so-called off-peak period. Conventions and seminars have thus been hosted in seaside or mountain resorts. The strategy is based on the availability of accommodation, which are however not always geared to professionals on business trips, and on the presence of entertainment activities or those that can contribute to the objective of the organisers. Success depends on the reputation and urban character of the place. While Cannes and Biarritz can compete with Paris for hosting major events, other places manage to change the seasonality marginally but not completely. Therefore, this “deseasonalisation” trend contributes to annualising attendance in that place through temporary inhabitants who are not tourists.

More contemporarily, “residentialisation” (making neighbourhoods better places to live) are also contributing to a relative reduction of seasonal gaps. This process of residential mobility to tourist places, and especially to those created by this initially temporary shift, was identified very early by Françoise Cribier, first in Florida (1972), then in France (1984) and in Europe (1993). It may be due to pensioners who settle down in the second home they have acquired to “live in the country of holidays”. Some of them do not cut off from the place of their working life but move back and forth between the two places. In addition, places close to big cities or that are easily accessible also receive large numbers of the working population in certain regions. The permanent population then rises in these municipalities which therefore become multifunctional. The predominance of tourism there may meet with objection from the new inhabitants seeking peace and quiet. This journey from the resort to the city enriches the typology of tourist destinations.

The diversification of patterns of work also allows for alternating mobility between spaces that tourism has made habitable and big cities. Philippe Duhamel (1997 and 2001) showed how the Balearic Islands fulfilled this purpose relative to Germany. The Covid pandemic, which has made teleworking a common practice, seems to revive prospects for certain tourist resorts that implement strategies to welcome new residents.

Impacts of seasonality on employment

Seasonality has significant impacts on the functioning of tourist places. The influx of inhabitants implies the arrival of numerous workers too. It is difficult for them to find accommodation, if this has not been planned ahead, both by the professionals who sometimes host them, and by public players. This pace of activity does not impact workers only; businesses also emerge during the peak season. Some even alternate. They open in a seaside resort in summer, and in the mountains in winter. Fairground stallholders follow their customers. Market density therefore expands in summer in seaside resorts.

Across the Vendée department, for example, tourism has a strong economic and social impact. It represented 2.1 billion euros of sales in 2016, according to a survey conducted in 2017 by “Vendée Expansion” (a spin-off of the local Chamber of Commerce and Industry). Every year, millions of tourists (36.3 million of overnight stays in 2017) visit the department, mostly in the months of July and August (61% of annual attendance). 63% of “tourism-related jobs” in 2016 were temporary jobs, i.e., fixed-term contracts (French CDD), accounting for 23,398 out of 37,018 salaried jobs (three-quarters of which are workers aged 18 to 25). Among these temporary jobs, nearly 4,600 employment contracts are fixed-term contracts of one to two months maximum spread over the summer period. Two-thirds of “tourism-related jobs” in Vendée are located on the coast.

Seaside tourism professions in France, for example, are structured by the length of the tourism seasonality of the territories. Service jobs in the tourism sector are mainly characterised by fixed-term employment contracts during the summer period, the duration of which rarely exceeds three to four months between May and September. While there is a variety of tasks and functions within this highly diverse professional sector, the remuneration is quite heterogeneous (ranging from the minimum wage to more than double the minimum wage, including tips and other gratuities) and does not require high level of qualifications or diplomas. Professionals in the seaside summer tourism economy on fixed-term employment contracts and seasonal contracts are thus hired in catering (bars, restaurants) as waiters, dishwashers, etc.; in the hotel sector (hotels, campsites) as reception agents, maintenance staff, etc.; in leisure services (in dedicated associations and companies) as reception agents, entertainment hosts, state-certified sports instructors, etc. They can also work as lifeguards (in swimming pool, water body or at sea), vendors in stalls and other beach shops, etc. From students with a “summer job” to employees holding multiple jobs who have for many years worked “the seasons”, from the “young trainees” to natives of the place who make the most during one or two summers of the conducive local economy or employees who work every year and alternate between summer and winter seasons, the profiles (age, sex, diploma(s) and qualification(s), professional experience(s), etc.) are very diverse to say the least.

Therefore, in the French context (Guibert and Réau, 2021), where obtaining an annual full-time job under a permanent contract (French CDI) remains “the normal and general form of the employment relationship” according to the French Labour Code, what “retains” or does not “retain” those seasonal workers, whose jobs are characterised by fixed-term contracts, sometimes “tedious” working conditions (Charvet, Laurioux, Lazuech, 2016), where “hours are not counted”, where “the pace of work is intense” according to the expressions of the seasonal workers interviewed and where working conditions are often demanding? The structure of tourism employment has impacts on living conditions, particularly at the family level at a later age.

Seasonal workers mention aspects other than economic needs in the narrow sense of the word to justify taking up these jobs. The passion and the bohemian lifestyle can be the motivation behind the professional commitment of some of them. These questions are hardly addressed in social sciences in relation to tourism professions, except for some recent work in French language (in particular: Réau, 2006, 2009, on entertainment; Dethyre, 2007, on social tourism; Pinna, 2013, on “luxury” hotels; Gentil, 2013, on geographical mobility; finally, on sports Guibert and Slimani, 2011; Rech & Paget, 2012; Guibert, 2012; Sébileau, 2014; Hoibian, 2014; Guillaud, 2017).

While economic benefits, “passion”, living a carefree Bohemian life, developing a social network, and acquiring symbolic prestige are the main reasons mentioned – in their own words – by the employees and seasonal workers interviewed to explain their professional choices, the fact remains that the localised career paths of these professionals are determined counter-time under fixed-term contracts (during ordinary holiday periods) and counter-space (in holiday places). As a result, there is a divergence from social norms according to which a permanent contract (CDI) is established as a rule, as the “employment norm” (Méda, 2018), and where geographical and domestic occupational stability (having a partner, having one or more children) are socially valued.

Finally, the wide range of situations encountered attest to the fact that the term “seasonal” refers to very varied conditions of exercise of professions as well as very diverse social profiles. The expected benefits are appraised differently depending on the profile, which partly explains why some will return the following season and others will not. From year to year, working the tourist seasons contributes to a “relaxation from the established norms” of being a salaried worker and allows new relational styles and social ties to shape up.

And on companies too…

Seasonality is not only an adventure for “rather young adults” in search of a life of passion. It also has an entrepreneurial dimension that is actually in sync with that of employees. This is the case for fairground stallholders and SMEs and very small businesses, especially in catering businesses, who follow their customers or who alternate between winter in the mountains and summer at the sea. This pace of work sometimes disrupts public policies that seek to annualise their functioning, and that have failed due to the lack of understanding of professionals who feel they are working all the time. Similarly, for some accommodations and especially campsites, seasonality does not mean that operations stop completely. Some of the staff work full time from 1 January to 31 December because, after the departure of tourists comes the time for maintenance, painting, trimming, marketing, etc.

Christophe GUIBERT and Philippe VIOLIER


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