Tourist site

In everyday language, everything is a site. We note that in the Memento du Tourisme published by the DGE, the entry Site Touristique de France (Tourist site in France) is the last entry and jumbles together Disneyland, Louvre Museum, Domaine de Versailles, Eiffel Tower, Puy du Fou, etc., in other words establishments as well as sites. In geography, a site is “a space considered as a possible location for a possible installation” (Lévy, 2013). The term is used in the typology of tourist destinations proposed by the MIT team in 2002.

Common features

A site is characterised by the predominance of the function of discovery or play, within tourism, and by the absence of accommodation capacity, or only minimal accommodation, unlike some of the exclusive resorts that offer a full range of tourist functions.

Furthermore, the site is not a place where there are permanent residents. In that regard, it is closer to comptoirs (exclusive resorts for tourists with no local population and managed by a single operator). There is no population there other than possibly the various professionals employed for its maintenance or for receiving the public. Therefore, these places are mostly open for the day, more rarely for evening events or if accommodation facilities are available there, but unlike an exclusive resort the accommodation capacity is much lower than the total number of visitors.

Accommodation is added for economic reasons. The desire to sustain public interest, especially in view of repeat customers, means that new experiences have to be proposed on a regular basis. The need to diversity the offer finally justifies the shift from day attendance and also from short stays. As a result, the manager has to propose overnight stays on site. Eventually, the site can develop into an exclusive resort.


Other than that, a distinction can be made between sites that are man-made constructions and those that owe their touristicity to a particular “given” appreciated within a society.

Man-made sites

A first category of sites includes the constructed sites, i.e., sites that are essentially the result of human intervention, unlike so-called natural parks that we call “given”. The attributes owe nothing to human action; they are not built. It is societies that have distinguished these places through their perception and then through their action in particular by delineating them.

Then within this built-up ensemble are the historically created sites. This makes them more akin to towns and villages. But unlike a tourist city, a tourist site is an isolated place, built for a certain destination and occupied by tourists at some point in their itinerary. For example, the Chambord castle built for François the 1st, from 1519, for residential purposes in the heart of a wooded park dedicated to hunting, has become a tourist destination visited by nearly a million people. The same is true of the Haut-Koenigsbourg castle, a jewel of tourism in Alsace, located at a short distance from the village of Orschwiller (Ill. 1).

Ill. 1. Haut-Koenigsbourg castle located at a short distance from the village of Orschwiller (source: IGN-Geoportal)

These places have lost their original functions or these are no longer their exclusive functions, and then they became a tourist site. The Abbey of Sénanques in Gordes (Ill. 2 and 3) illustrates a variant of the tourist site, in which a monastic community has resettled.

Ill. 2. Map of Gordes in the Vaucluse, the Abbey of Sénanque, isolated, is located north of the village (source: IGN-Geoportal)
Ill. 3. Abbey of Sénanque isolated in Gordes (source: IGN-Geoportal)

The Abbey of Sénanque has witnessed a turbulent history. Sold as a national property in 1791, it hosted monks again in 1857. They were driven away in 1903, returned in 1926, before leaving in 1969. In 1988, a community settled there again. Classified as a historical monument in two stages, 1921 and 1970, the site was converted into an active cultural centre until 1988, at the initiative of Paul Berliet, an enthusiastic industrialist. Since then, the site is open to visitors.

To understand today’s functioning of this site, we apply the reasoning put forward by Max Weber on the ideal type. The wide range of forms in the world calls for an abstractive approach that disregards secondary elements for better clarity and to enable a classification. Hence, the fact that Senanque retains a religious function does not exclude it. Similarly, although Mont-Saint-Michel has accommodation facilities and is inhabited by a permanent population, which elects a mayor, the small quantities of each of these two elements, compared to the number of tourists, lead to us consider the place as a site. The presence of a concentration of hotels nearby does not call this choice into question because it is located some distance away and is not managed by the same entity as that of the heritage place.

Also, within the premises of the Chambord castle there are three cottages, with three or four bedrooms each, that are available for rent (Ill. 4 and 5), and a hotel in the adjoining village, Le Relais de Chambord, offers 55 rooms. These capacities are small in proportion to the number of entrances to the castle which is close to a million. Thus, applying the ideal-typical Weberian approach leads to disregarding the village, of very modest size, as well as the few accommodations.

Ill. 4. Chambord Castle and the park (only the graphic scale is relevant) (source: IGN-Géoportail)
Ill. 5. Chambord Castle and the village, close-up view (only the graphic scale is relevant) (source: IGN-Geoportal)

In this concept of sites, we also include establishments that are integrated into a village and dominate it by virtue of their tourist outreach, unlike tourist villages that are visited as heritage ensembles. The latter can include a major object that does not overpower the place. For example, the village of Fontevraud in Maine-et-Loire includes the largest abbey in Europe.

The castles of Cheverny and Chenonceau are other examples.

Ill. 6. Fontevraud: the village overwhelmed by the size of its abbey (source: IGN-Geoportal)

A borderline case is that of the Benedictine abbeys of Solesmes, in the Sarthe: St. Peter for monks, St. Cecilia for nuns. They could function as two sites, particularly the latter, as it is located away from the village. But it is open to the public only for participation in services, renowned for Gregorian chants, as well as religious purposes such as retreats.

The dynamics of the sites follow two trends. On the one hand, the diversification of offerings aiming to increase attendance and also to encourage repeat visits by individuals who have already come. Thus, a programme of cultural events is hosted at the Abbey of Fontevraud and a museum of contemporary art was opened in one wing thanks to a donation. On the other hand, the creation of accommodation facilities allows an increase in the volume of activity, directly but also indirectly by facilitating short stays on site rather than in the surrounding area. This strategy can be observed in particular in theme parks, including zoos.

The so-called “natural” sites, or given sites

The given spaces, with no construction, but delineated by human societies after they have been vested with values related to one or more noteworthy and noted characters constitute a second set of sites. The term “natural” is often used as much by institutional appellations (National Park, Regional Natural Park, etc.) as by authors. However, it masks reality because if the absence or scarcity of infrastructures can give the illusion of an origin other than man-made, delineation it, as in speeches justifying both its creation and its touristification, reveals the social nature of these territories.

Natural sites appeared as a tourist object in North America, and in particular the Yosemite (state park in 1886) and Yellowstone (national park in 1872) were the first to be established in the world before the concept became widespread and changed by approaching more humanised spaces such as in Europe (MIT team, 2005). In some parts of the world, such as North America or Africa, the size of these spaces and the distance separating them from densely populated regions have led to the setting up of accommodation facilities. Thus, in Yellowstone, which covers nearly 9,000 km2, or the area of the largest French departments, hotels, and campsites welcome visitors. They are concentrated in certain parts in order to limit the impacts of attendance. Here, we walk a fine line between a site and an exclusive resort. A different relationship with the environment has also facilitated this development and accommodating tourists is more extensive than in certain European countries, such as France, where doctrine tends to exclude it or restrict its opening in some form. Here we reach the boundaries between a site and an exclusive resort.

Philippe VIOLIER


  • Équipe MIT, 2002, Tourisme 1. Lieux communs. Paris, Belin.
  • Lévy Jacques, 2013, «Site», dans Lévy Jacques et Lussault Michel (dir.), Dictionnaire de la géographie et de l’espace des sociétés. Paris, Belin, 1128 p.