France urges residents to be nicer to tourists

Tourists wait in line to enter the 'Chateau de Versailles' (Palace of Versailles) on May 18, 2014...

Tourists wait in line to enter the 'Chateau de Versailles' (Palace of Versailles) on May 18, 2014 in Versailles, outside Paris. AFP PHOTO/BERTRAND GUAY


, Last Updated: 1:52 PM ET

France on Thursday unveiled plans to boost tourism and said it needed to eradicate its surly reputation as the world's top destination for foreign visitors faces increasingly stiff competition.

Speaking at the close of a national conference on tourism, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that the government had fixed a target of attracting 100 million foreign tourists annually compared to 83 million in 2012.

Accompanying him, commerce minister Fleur Pellerin said France would try and iron out inconveniences faced by tourists, especially in getting visas.

She also said the country needed to "recover a sense of hospitality" as "too often we mistake service with servility", adding authorities should use the Internet better to promote tourism.

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France -- and particularly Paris -- has a reputation of being unfriendly to tourists especially if they do not speak French, and waiters are widely viewed as rude.

The French capital's image has also suffered from muggings and other attacks on tourists, especially well-heeled Chinese travellers lured to a city they see as an epitome of fashion, luxury and culture.

More than one million Chinese visitors come to France every year, and the government would like to increase that figure.

But several well-publicised attacks on Chinese tourists -- such as the robbery of a group of 23 Chinese visitors in a restaurant shortly after they landed in March last year -- have cast a cloud on this desire.

- High stakes -

"Tourism is not an amusing or secondary matter... the stakes are the same as exports," Pellerin said.

At stake are much-needed cash and jobs at a time of dire crisis in France, particularly when neighbouring Britain is claiming that Paris has lost its mantle to London as the world's top destination for foreign tourists.

Reviving the traditional Britain-France rivalry, French authorities dispute this and say the City of Light is still the top draw.

Fabius said the tourism action plan would focus on five different areas -- gastronomy and wine, sports and mountaineering, ecotourism, luxury and artisan work, and urban tourism.

He said the government would also work to classify more sites as tourist zones, to allow more shops and eateries to remain open on Sundays.

Retailers in France can only open on Sundays under very specific conditions -- such as if stores are in a tourist zone -- and late-night shopping, which is hugely popular with visitors, is also not allowed.

Trade unions fiercely defend the principle that working late at night or on Sundays should be exceptional.

But critics and tour operators counter this may be driving tourists out of Paris and towards London.

Fabius also said parts of Paris's gritty Gare du Nord railway station would be renovated, starting with the hall for those travelling by Eurostar to and from London.

"The Gare du Nord is Europe's leading railway station and it must be able to stand comparison with St Pancras" station in London, where the Eurostar departs and arrives, he said.

In yet another measure to try and attract visitors, Fabius said that come next year there would be special lanes reserved for buses and taxis on the highway linking Paris's main Charles De Gaulle airport to the capital.

He also called for a better welcome at French airports and railway stations, saying: "The first contact is often the determining factor."