Thermal resort

In France, 90 municipalities have thermal establishments, hence the expression “thermal resorts”. This widely used expression – that only became a usual and official expression after 1890 (Walloon, 1981) – is however inaccurate from a scientific point of view (see Tourist resort). These 90 thermal places, most of which exceed 2,000 inhabitants, are mainly located south of the Bordeaux-Metz line, in mountainous areas. They are often economic clusters that are vital to their immediate environment.

The history of the thermalism has made its mark on these municipalities. The particular spatial and functional organisation, the urban planning, and the surprising urban character for small municipalities, can still be observed today. Thermal destinations still suffer from the stigmas of the crisis that hit the thermalism sector in the years 1990-2000. Burdened by urban brownfields, they also faced a tarnished image.

In recent years, however, active communication policies have been initiated by municipalities to show that thermal resorts are not outdated and that they continue to be major tourist hubs and potentially residential cities for new teleworkers.

A state classification that has evolved

Prior to 2006, classified tourist resorts were divided into six categories: seaside, tourist, winter sports, mountain, spa, and health resorts. The Law of 14 April 2006 simplified this jargon keeping only one category: the classified tourist resort, accessible only to localities that have been designated as tourist municipality.

Among the 468 classified tourist resorts in 2021, 90 have one or more active thermal establishments (113 according to the CNETh – National Council of Thermal Establishments), that is to say intended for approved thermal cures. This is referred to as “thermal resorts”. This name also applies to municipalities in which the thermal establishment has closed down but where thermal or fitness infrastructure still exists (e.g., Saint-Nectaire).

Among the 90 thermal municipalities, some are either resorts, or touristified towns/villages, or towns/resorts with urban functions, as per the meaning given to them by Stock et al. (2020).

Thermal resorts, mostly mountain resorts, with a permanent population of more than 2,000 inhabitants

In 2017, among the 89 thermal resorts (the 90th, Camoins, is a district of Marseilles), 39 were municipalities of less than 2,000 inhabitants. The urban entities were broken down into 22 urban areas, 12 urban units (of which just over half are multi-municipal units), 14 individual municipalities belonging to larger urban centres and two municipalities outside urban units (Férérol, 2021) (Ill. 1). To use the CNT’s conclusion (2011): the common widespread view of a thermal industry mainly established in rural areas is only partly true.

In reality, the permanent population of thermal municipalities varies greatly, ranging from 79 inhabitants in Brion (municipality of Chaldette) to 93,456 in Thonon les Bains. The average and median populations are respectively 8,350 and 2,586 inhabitants and if we take strictly urban thermal places, they are 14,223 and 6,294 inhabitants.

Ill. 1. Distribution of thermal destinations by population in 2017 (source: INSEE, RP2017, main establishments, geography as of 1 January 2020)

As shown in figures 2 and 3, there is no correlation between the number of inhabitants and the number of spa clients. Thonon les Bains, with 93,500 inhabitants, is a town of significant size but is only a secondary thermal resort with only 2,655 persons covered by social security. In contrast, Mont-Dore, with only 1,278 inhabitants year-round can boast of an attendance of nearly 10,000 spa clients.

Ill. 2. Number of inhabitants and persons covered by social security in 2017 (source: RGP, INSEE and CNETh)

The contribution of a temporary population is therefore by no means insignificant for some municipalities. In certain cases, it allows for the existence of infrastructures that would not be feasible considering the population size. Communal and anomalous businesses are thus over-represented. In 2011, thermal municipalities had 0.28 hyper and supermarkets per 1,000 inhabitants, while the national average was 0.18; 2.74 clothing/shoe stores vs 1.17 nationally and 1.3 bakeries vs 0.78 (CNT, 2011: P. 21).

Ill. 3. Population size and number of spa clients (source: data compiled by Marie-Eve Férérol)

Across metropolitan France, the geographical distribution is far from homogeneous. Due to various geological and historical factors, thermal resorts are mainly located south of the Bordeaux-Metz line, mainly in mountainous areas (Ill. 4). Some forty departments are more or less involved.

Ill. 4. Location of the 90 French thermal destinations (source: CNETh, 2022)

Although many small resorts have disappeared since the 19th century (Ogeu, Sail, Vic-sur-Cère, L’Échaillon, etc.), most of them are still in operation today. Some were even launched or revived in the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when the thermalism sector witnessed exceptional attendance, thereby whetting the appetite of public and private players. Four resorts were thus born following a proactive policy designed to capture and (re)promote a thermal water source: Eugénie, Amnéville, Saint Paul lès Dax and Jonzac. In recent years, other municipalities have shown an appetite for thermalism: Santenay, Nancy and soon Saint-Jean d’Angély (awaiting approval from health authorities).

An image to rebuild

Reflecting the recent history of thermalism, society’s image of thermal resorts has evolved significantly.

Some see the spa town as a model city: a municipality of average importance, located in a green setting, with all the advantages of a city but without its nuisances. A city in the countryside, without the disadvantages of the countryside or the city, the polar opposite of an industrial city with polluted and contaminated air.

Carribon, 2014: p. 102

From the second Empire, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie were happy to stay in thermal resorts, places where one had to be seen. On the excuse of taking care of their health, the affluent customers were in fact mostly in search of hedonism, idleness, and light-heartedness (Gerbod, 2004; Boyer, 2005; Venayre, 2012). Constrained by bourgeois morality, anxious over an uncertain future at the turn of the 20th century (surge of modernity, first signs of World War I, etc.), they would happily travel to the spa towns as soon as the warm weather arrived. Spa towns then became “safety valves” (Authier, 1997: P. 130), “seasonal outlets” (Jarassé, 1992: P. 235), a world apart, away from everyday routine, where many a line could be crossed.

In Bath, a decisive reversal took place: idleness was no longer hidden as it shaped the place. No longer was an aggravating factor or a medical pretext needed by a section of that society to go for a cure. They did not fear, or no longer feared, to publicly display their idle kind of life geared to a collective search for individual wellness. Frivolity as well as play and sex became part of the society’s life and the fundamental argument of the place.

Équipe MIT, 2005: P. 32

Refinement, forward thinking, idealism, serenity (Dutheil, 2004; Carribon, 2014), all complacent adjectives that described the thermal resorts of the late 19th century and early 20th century. The resorts were “utopian and artificial spaces, based on illusion and appearance, ephemeral and seasonal, of escapism and enchantment beyond the limits of time” (Toulier, 2004: P. 17). Accommodation and entertainment facilities had to live up to the expectations of wealthy customers (luxury hotels, racetracks, casino, etc.).

A century later, the image of thermal resorts was far from attractive. The descriptions were much less flattering, due in particular to the medical doctrine that dealt them a blow after the second world war, “this medical monoculture that saw to the decline of thermal resorts” (De Monbrison, 2004: P. 25). The resorts lost their prestige (Weisz, 2002; Jazé-Charvolin, 2014) and were seen as cities for the elderly with reference to the age of the customers (the average age of spa clients was 63 years) and to that of the permanent population (36.6% over 60 years – Férérol, 2017). They were seen as boring cities, with outdated entertainment. They also became ordinary municipalities, among many others. The prestigious villas of the past centuries were divided up and became furnished accommodation to match the needs of the new customers. Luxury and prestigious hotels were sold as apartments, the entertainment system was completely neglected. Racetracks, tennis courts, casinos were totally unsuitable for customers of lower social status.

When the thermalism sector went through the structural and economic crisis of the years 1990-2000, “the atmosphere is not very positive. Sometimes there is a form of sadness and a somewhat old-fashioned look that tarnishes the tourist image” (De Montbrison, 2004: P. 24). Abandoned spas, hotels, etc. were quickly woven into the urban fabric (Ill. 5).

Ill. 5. Examples of brownfields in thermal municipalities (Cl. Marie-Eve Férérol)

Sometimes, these abandoned hotels were rehabilitated and converted into apartment buildings while the abandoned spas found a second life as the backdrop of public buildings (Palais des Congrès in Evian, Botanical Conservatory in Bagnères de Bigorre, University centre in Vichy) or more rarely as residential buildings (for example, for 2022 as part of the brownfield fund, the Ministry of Ecological Transition granted 2,245,900 euros to La Bourboule for the conversion of the Choussy thermal baths into permanent / secondary housing of about 60 homes and business premises and 982,000 euros to Saint-Nectaire for a multigenerational residence for inhabitants, new inhabitants of rural areas and seasonal workers in the former Lignerat thermal centre).

Against this gloomy backdrop, an unexpected consequence of the crisis was to prove favourable for the future. This set back was, in fact, beneficial to some thermal municipalities. Ignored by investors and thus unable to get the neighbourhood upgraded, the spa towns saw their old buildings preserved from destruction and becoming over time a precious heritage, both architecturally and economically. The touristification of this heritage meant that the thermal resorts could renew their appeal, win back customers, and improve their image.

In 2008, the Association La Route des Villes d’Eaux du Massif Central (Ill. 6) started working on the promotion of thermal heritage (Férérol, 2015). Very active, and having as adviser Bernard Toulier, former general curator of heritage at the Ministry of Culture, it carried out numerous actions, both conventional and bold (collaboration with street artists in 2020/2021) to create awareness about the resources of thermal municipalities of central France. Most of them having been spa flagships during the Belle Epoque and the Années Folles (the roaring twenties), the heritage was remarkable and even exceptional. The Pyrenees, also well-endowed with renowned thermal resorts, took an interest in this heritage resource with strong tourist and urban potential. This is evidenced by the TCVPYR programme, whose aim was to conduct a scientific and cultural inventory of the resort heritage in the Pyrenees (Meynen et al., 2020).

Ill. 6. Map of the Route des Villes d’Eaux (spa town route), 2019 (source: RVE Association)

Morphological characteristics of thermal destinations

Thermal municipalities are characterised by the diversity of their urban fabric. Although the plans may have undergone some changes, the most common ones can still be found in urban geography. There is firstly the linear plan, that of “the street-town” which is located in Eaux-Bonnes Cauterets, Plombières… The next most widespread is the radio-concentric or semi-radio-concentric plan. Bourbonne, Challes, Evian, Vittel are good examples of the latter. The reason it is most common is perhaps because this model highlights the very heart of the thermal system. Lastly, some cities, especially those created from scratch, stand apart with their grid plan. This plan was well thought out even before the development of the municipality, as epitomised by La Bourboule (Férérol, 2012). However, this typology is somewhat arbitrary as there are sometimes two types of plans in the same municipality.

The search for the best plan should not be seen as an absolute desire to rationalise space, or the development of an orderly conception of the universe or of society; thermal urbanists – men and women from the local environment or from the business bourgeoisie present at the municipal Council – were neither theorists of the use of space in urban environments, nor the builders of a new city (in the Greek sense of polis (city)). They were practitioners whose first objective was to facilitate quick and easy access to the spas primarily, and then to the central district.

Carribon, 1988: p. 425

The more or less significant development of the thermal business has brought about spatial and territorial changes. Thermal resorts have been created from scratch, such as La Bourboule or Bagneres de Luchon, and looked like the mining boom towns of the United States (a boom town is a town that witnesses significant demographic and economic growth in a short time). Indeed the “spa fever” (Penez, 1994) or the “water war” were hot topics then. Others on the contrary saw the emergence of a new district, the thermal district, alongside the old district. Salies de Béarn thus has an old centre with a typical building and a thermal district with a spa, a park, a kiosk, and beautiful villas (Ill. 7).

Ill. 7. Views of the old centre and the adjacent thermal district of Salies de Béarn (Cl. Marie-Eve Férérol)

As part of the FEDER TCV-PYR programme, researchers from Toulouse worked more specifically on the geographical history of the 57 Pyrenean spa municipalities (old and current) (Antoine et al.2020: p. 144). In their work, they showed how the thermalism sector has shaped the space (Ill. 8). From modest urbanisation in the 18th and early 19th century, the move was very quick to the development of thermal districts consisting of baths, hotels, parks, a casino, etc. To facilitate attendance at the nascent resort, access was improved (roads and then railways in the last third of the 19th). At the same time, the surrounding space was enhanced with the creation of viewing areas and in some cases funiculars to support the emergence of winter tourism. After 1947 and the transition to social thermalism, the customer profile changed but this new thermalism was no longer a factor driving the development of the space.

The most significant changes came from the abandonment of agro-pastoral activities which led to a closure of the landscape, much appreciated in the last century. In the years 1960-70, on higher altitude, winter sports resorts emerged (Luz Ardiden for example for Luz-Saint-Sauveur), which dampened the impacts of the thermalism crisis of the years 1990-2000. In the 21th century resort, little has changed in the space: the infrastructures still exist, but many are no longer in operation (e.g., railway lines, buildings of former holiday camps).

Ill. 8. Model of the historical evolution of the Pyrenean thermal resort

As shown in the charts of Figure 8, an economic zoning is overlaid on the road grid of thermal resorts. In 1988, Christian Jamot had already marked out these concentric rings all around the thermal areas, knowing that the more the city grows, the more the different zones would expand:

  • first an area welcoming shops, hotels, public services;
  • then an area for furnished accommodation;
  • residential neighbourhoods;
  • leisure areas;
  • and finally secondary activities around the system.

In fact, the principle that prevails in thermal resorts is not unlike the functional zoning (separation of functions) of modern urbanism that would benefit (or hamper) the winter sports resorts created in the 1950s (Micheletto and Novarina, 2002).

While overall, this spatial zoning is still valid in the 2020s for thermal resorts, it has changed slightly due to the conversion of hotels into apartments (see above). This transmutation phenomenon is to be compared, even if it is not the same logic at work, to that of the tourist residences in certain winter sports resorts converted into simple apartment buildings. However, the conclusion is the same (with nuances depending on the place): an increase in second homes (currently, the rate of second homes in thermal resorts globally is 57% – Nomadeis, 2021) and hence of cold beds (a cold bed is occupied less than four weeks in a year (Marieu, 2018). However, as Steve Hagimont (2018) rightly points out, this phenomenon can weaken the commercial structure of resorts.

Backed by their experience, the thermal municipalities that have fully succeeded in the tourist turnaround continue to be major tourist clusters. At the 2021 European Thermalism Meetings in Vichy, several issues were identified:

  • re-establish tourism (the synergy between thermalism and tourism was weakened after the recognition of thermal therapy in 1947 as a strictly medical therapy);
  • develop thermal resorts into total health resorts in line with the thermalism spectrum, ranging from curative to preventive encompassing wellness (see entry on ‘thermalism’);
  • work towards the diversification of mountain activities (cf. the future diagnosis commissioned from Nomadeis by the association of elected representatives of the mountain, the National Association of Mayors of thermal municipalities and the CNETh);
  • and take advantage of the inscription of several spa towns on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which has recognised, among other things, their architectural and urban interest, and consequently develop the heritage resource even further.

Other than their tourist potential, some of them have acquired a certain number of urban functions that make them key clusters of the territory. The government is aware of this. It is therefore not surprising to discover that Dax, Digne, Lons, Rochefort and Vichy have been selected for the “Cœur de Ville” (city centre) programme, and two-thirds of the thermal resorts of more than 2,000 inhabitants for the “Petites Villes de Demain” (Small Cities of tomorrow) programme. May this state support counter the difficulties of the commercial fabric faced with the risk of decline due to the sector’s current trends, and in the more specific case of resorts due to the multiplication of cold beds.



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