Tourist resort

Derived from the Latin verb “stare” and the common noun “statio”, the noun “station” has a broad meaning. The Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française lists several of them including: a break along a route (cf. the Way of the Cross ), by the same logic, a place where one stops during a road or rail journey and a place where one would take to the waters, spring water as well as sea water. In astronomy, it is the state of a planet that does not move forward or backward in the zodiac. Finally, in religion, it is either all the Lent sermons, or the tour of designated churches to be granted indulgences.

In tourism terms, taking the first three definitions, we could say that a resort is a place where we take a more or less long break on a trip by car, bus or train and which, at the beginning of the tourist revolution, was located by the sea or near a thermal spring. But that would be too simple. In everyday language, especially in professional circles, everything is station.

The definition of “tourist resort” encompasses legal, geographical as well as economic concepts.

Emergence of stations

The tourist resort, as a place vested and created by tourism emerged very early in the history of tourism if we consider Bath as the first one historically set up in England in 1700, where the practice was invented. Then the British doctor Richard Russel prescribed sea bathing and launched Brighton around 1750. The district of Regency terraces was established not far from the fishing village, but different from the village. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that tourist resorts spread across the world. Thus, Arcachon and Atlantic City were created at the same time on both sides of the Atlantic at the beginning of the 1850s. This coincidence in time shows that the spatial form owes as much to the social process as to local conditions.

A state classification

The State got involved with the laws of 14 March and 24 September 1919, followed by several other laws that broadened the classification range (Ill. 1).

Ill. 1. State classification of stations (source: Jégouzo, 2018)

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 (online).

A municipality is declared “tourist municipality” if it meets three specific criteria: it has a classified tourist office, it organises tourism activities and has accommodation capacity for a non-permanent population. Other characteristics, simplified by the decree of 16 April 2019, are necessary to be granted the status of tourist resort and this is valid for 12 years. Examples are: the provision of free internet access in public places, at least four different types of accommodation, numerous local services (a pharmacy, an open market in high season, etc.) and the existence of urban planning documents, in particular a PPI (Special response plan) or a PCS (Municipal protection plan). In 2021, 468 municipalities were classified as tourist municipalities (list as of 10 November 2021).

Being recognised as a “tourist resort” certainly implies the responsibly of complying with the above-mentioned criteria, but this has benefits too: higher compensation for elected officials, an upgraded demographic classification of the municipality (determined in relation to the tourism carrying capacity) and the direct allocation of the proceeds of the surcharges on registration duties or on the cadastral tax (this applies only to municipalities of less than 5,000 inhabitants since those of a higher demographic weight already receive it as annual allocations)

However, this legal definition is not considered satisfactory by some researchers.

The geographical approach to tourism

In the 1990s, Daniel Clary (1993) and Vincent Vlès (1996) tried to define the term “station” through notions of geography and economy, and favoured a systemic approach. The objective of rationalising space occupation modes for ensuring economic and financial profitability, will result in the emergence of tourist resorts. Let us leave the structural approach with its dedicated land strips (e.g., the waterfront, green spaces, etc.) to focus on the functional approach of the system-resort.

Since a resort is driven by traffic flows (road or pedestrian), everything must be done to facilitate internal traffic and avoid congestion. Coherent traffic plans are therefore at the core of the planning. Then, it is necessary to provide accommodation in sufficient numbers and of various types to satisfy visitors, knowing that they are also looking for fun activities to do. Areas and buildings not used for tourist accommodation are therefore assigned to this function. Information and services also play a key role in the proper functioning of the resort, whether the information is about tourism activities or public services.

“The resort is a complete organisation, perceived as an overall package by tourists whose needs are global and have to be met simultaneously.

Clary, 1993: p. 71

A tourist resort lives by the flows that reach it, cross through it (it can be a break on a journey). Its clientèle therefore comes from more or less far away; its recruitment area is similar to the catchment area of ordinary shops. The depth (a few to several hundred kilometres) and the size of the catchment area will differentiate one resort from another (resort for local clientèle – Chastreix for Sancy, or for an international clientèle – Courchevel in the Alps). Because of the existence of this catchment area (but also because of the origin of the investors), Clary talks of the concept of market-resort (Ill. 2).

Ill. 2. The market-resort system (source: Clary D., 1993: p. 73)

But this market made up of individuals will impact the redevelopment of resorts over the years. Tourists are increasingly volatile and tastes change between generations. One only has to see the different characteristics between generation X (1960s and 1970s) and generations Y (1980s and 1990s) and Z (from the 2000s).

“The market-product equilibrium can only be achieved only under constant disequilibrium. The clientèle evolves and the resort is also a living organism. Building customer loyalty, which is everyone’s wish, means evolving with customers. But the length of the life cycle is not identical for tourists (our tastes at 40 years old are not the same as when we were 20) and the facilities; however, new generations have different needs to previous generations at the same age. The aim of every resort is also to attract new tourists. Hence the need to install new facilities that are considered better suited, more efficient, fashionable.”

Clary, 1993: p. 71

A tourist resort is therefore transformed depending on the new refurbishments carried out to match the new desires of tourists. But it also evolves in terms of its operation, with some resorts shifting from seasonal to permanent operation with a population now residing there all year round.

A new approach

At the beginning of the 2000s, Clary and Vlès’s approach was questioned by geographers from the MIT team (2002). Their approach was based on two criticisms. Firstly, they point out that the authors do not distinguish among the different tourist destinations. Daniel Clary (1993) presents the resort as the standard. Presented at the beginning of the book, in chapter 2, the resort is thought of as the tourist destination par excellence, while the chapters develop the different types of tourist spaces (coastal, mountain, urban, rural), in a classical geographical approach without mentioning the term resort. Vincent Vlès (1996) gives as examples of resort, places with very different morphologies and genesis. The resort is then presented as a living system or organism that would function without the interplay of the actors. The intervention of tourists is suggested but it is not integrated as a strategy within others.

For the proponents of the “geographical approach to tourism” to be distinguished from “the geography of tourism”, the resort fits into a typology: it is a place created by and for tourism, similar to the comptoir (exclusive resort). Its emergence is historically linked to tourism expanding from small-scale to large-scale. While, in the previous stage, the construction of a few villas every year was enough, the influx of tourists, brought about by the enrichment of society, requires both that many new places be created and that they change in scale. Thus in Arcachon, under the impulse of Émile Pereire from Bordeaux, the place was transformed from a row of few villas built along the beach, frequented since the 1820s, to a large-scale real-estate development (Cassou-Mounat, 1977).

As part of the large-scale tourist system (Violier, 2016), the resort is linked to the train (quote by Péreire), capable of transporting a large number of individuals, while the infrastructure justifies a concentration and not a spreading of flows, which the automobile would allow.

“In 1855, Émile Pereire proposed to the shareholders, in these terms, the construction of the La Teste-Arcachon section: “This extension will reach the centre of residential areas which, since the establishment of this line, have emerged as if by enchantment in Eyrac, near the baths and the Arcachon chapel. Where, fifteen years ago, there was not even a fisherman’s hut, a town has now developed and is growing in size every year. This town which, during the sea bathing season, serves as a meeting point for the population of Bordeaux and neighbouring departments, and which, in recent years, has received many visitors from Paris, England and Germany. This new agglomeration is about ten kilometres away from the lands of La Teste railway. In summer, there are not enough omnibuses to fill this gap; in winter, sedentary families cannot settle there due to the isolated location. The line was opened on 25 July 1857 and the Arcachon station, temporarily built of wood, soon proved insufficient. In 1859, Arcachon was already receiving 23,000 travellers.”

Cassou-Mounat, 1977: p. 327

This creation is necessary because tourists invent new places taking a radically different view from that of the inhabitants. Thus, along the coast of the English Channel, Le Touquet was founded by the director of Le Figaro, Hippolyte de Villemessant, hence the name of Paris-Plage, in the dunes with a sea view, while the villagers are settled in Cuq set back from the sea. As illustrated in Figure 3, there was no human settlement on the site where the resort was erected at the end of the 19th century (Ill. 4, map of 1950).

Ill. 3 There is no human settlement at Le Touquet, located on Le Poulier on the south shore of the Canche estuary. The village of Cucq is located inland, about two kilometres from the shore (source: Geoportal).

Ill. 4. The map of 1950 shows the occupation of the site by the resort while the grid plan shows its creation from scratch (source: Geoportal).

But a resort is different from a comptoir (exclusive resort) On the one hand, it is open, in the sense that anyone can cross it from end to end, walk along the beach, while the comptoir is closed. On the other hand, this restriction on local mobilities is due to the control exercised over the place by an entity that owns the property, and even several such entities with properties adjoining one another. For example, in La Baule-Escoublac, based on research conducted by Jean-Bernard Vighetti (1974), the resort was formed by the merger of several separately managed entities. This was decided after fragmentation was shown to have limitations, particularly as regards firefighting (Violier, 2002).

Finally, the resort has become a permanent place of life, in the sense that it is inhabited by a population that live there all year-round, which is characterised by necessary facilities such as schools. But tourism has a major impact on the place. It is its main economic engine and the pace of life is set according to the tourist seasons. In summer, the seaside resort welcomes a population that is much larger than the permanent population there, mainly for rest, but also for other practices.  In the mountains, there are two seasons, the main one being the ski season while in summer other physical activities take over.

Resorts are undergoing change

Resorts are undergoing change. The attributes of the place reflect the presence throughout the year of a permanent population or one that reside there over a long period due to dual residence. Among these new inhabitants, pensioners are the majority in resorts farther from the big cities while active workers live in the ones closest to big cities (see town-resort). Of course, this categorisation is not static, some places do change status. Stock et al. (2010) refer to “tourist routes”.

“Three main routes may be used: the continued monofunctional tourist town; the transformation of the place whereby the tourism function declines or changes, possibly into leisure; and the persistence or increase of diversification, i.e., the coexistence of different functions.”

Stock et al.2010: p. 71

To explain this change in status, Swiss researchers invented the concept of “tourism capital” (Darbellay, Clivaz, Nahrath and Stock, 2011). Tourism capital is itself divided into sub-capitals referring to a resort’s basis of operation (Ill. 3):

  • urban sub-capital refers to habitability conditions, to the urban conditions of the place;
  • governance sub-capital concerns the actors who manage the place, the power relations, the links they have among them (can they collaborate to bolster their resort?);
  • monetary sub-capital is useful to assess the attractiveness of the place (what is the resort’s investment capacity? Does it attract enough investors?);
  • knowledge sub-capital is the ability to adapt to demand, to understand the new needs of tourists;
  • reputational sub-capital is also very important in terms of attractiveness because it covers all the notions related to the image of the place;
  • finally, the resource sub-capital concerns the management of the resort’s resources. Each variation of a sub-capital can drive a tourist destination either to the status of “resort” or to that of “city with a tourist function” for example.

Ill. 5. The resort’s capital (source: Darbellay, Clivaz, Nahrath and Stock, 2011)

Resorts and the community

The resort as a place created by tourism does not originally correspond to a communal territory but superimposes itself on the legacy of parishes by adding value to a marginal site. This is how Cabourg-les-Bains developed opposite the sea, breaking with the village of Cabourg, whose site was on the banks of the Dive upstream of the estuary, has become Cabourg. The whole area has become the tourist area.

Another example is Pornichet, the resort located partly on the territory of Escoublac and partly on that of Saint-Nazaire became an autonomous municipality in 1900. Le Touquet-Paris-Plage is yet another case, breaking with the agricultural commune of Cucq. Figure 3 shows that Le Touquet became a municipality in 1912 as the map shows the number of inhabitants, according to the standard of the National Geographical Institute which draws up maps. In La Baule-Escoublac, there was no actual break with the village but the resort took precedence over the village, and the official name became La Baule-Escoublac in 1962.

Since the NOTRe law of 1995, tourism, a municipality competence that could be transferred, has become a mandatory competence of inter-municipal associations. But the 3DS law of 21 February 2022 gave back to municipalities, whose main industry is tourism, the opportunity to get back part of their autonomy (Article 10, including the creation of a tourist office and tourism promotion) without calling into question the inter-municipal management of tourism.


The tourist resort is therefore a place created by and for tourism. As such, they are specialised destinations whose economy is essentially based on this activity. Therefore, as with any place heavily dependent on a single economic engine, doubts may arise over their future.

Yet, on the one hand, while industrial cities, in the sense of places created by this activity, have disappeared, and some of them, such as the mining cities of California, have become tourist sites, or are experiencing serious difficulties with high unemployment rates and an ageing population, tourist resorts have mostly stood the test of time. They adapt to changing practices or become something else, like Malo-les-Bains, which has become a residential area in the Dunkirk agglomeration, but they do not disappear.

On the other hand, and particularly along the coasts, resorts are witnessing a revival through the development of new functions, in particular the residential function fuelled by the arrival of populations either retired or still working, when the resort is close to a city, forming part of that living area (MIT Team, 2011).

Marie-Eve FEREROL and Philippe VIOLIER


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