Julien Buot on Responsible Tourism Development in France

Published 12/10/2017
Julien Buot

Julien Buot

Julien Buot in this interview invites us to join him on a deep dive into the world of responsible tourism in France. Learn about the main actors, organizations and how France as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world is coping, adapting and working towards a more sustainable tourism industry.

Learn about:

  • How Julien Buot first got involved in tourism sustainability, and how his view on responsible tourism has changed over the years;
  • How the organisation Agir pour un Tourisme Responsable supports the sustainable development of tourism in France;
  • The pioneering responsible tour operators and tourism businesses in France;
  • Which destinations in France are leading in sustainability;
  • 3 bits of advice for destination managers on how to make their destination more inclusive.

Julien, as Director of Agir pour un Tourisme Responsable (ATR) you have been involved in sustainable tourism for several years. Do you remember what brought you to the topic in the first place? And your view/thoughts on tourism sustainability back then?

Just like Obelix, I fell in the cauldron of tourism when I was a child. I’ve had the chance to travel with my parents around Europe, in the US, Peru, Morocco… I have met amazing local guides, who made us discover their country with passion and in complete immersion with local inhabitants. I shared some of these memories with BestGlobe.

In 2001, I wrote a report about ethics in tourism for the French government. I was at that time studying political sciences. Entrusting a student with writing a report on a topic as important as how to control the impacts of a high growth industry was proof that the French administration didn’t care that much. But after all, my youth and innocence added an objective touch to my work. I produced an overview of the numerous organizations already involved in responsible tourism, such as the NGO ECPAT France (committed to the fight against sex tourism involving children) or the tour operator Atalante (creator of the Travellers’ Ethics Charter in 1996 and founder of the ATR association a few years later).

Back then, I had a very simplistic view of sustainable tourism, with good people on one side, and bad people on the other. I had been influenced by reports like “Le carton rouge au tourisme” written by DANTE (an NGO network condemning tourism harmful effects), translated into French by Dora Valayer.

However, I quickly realized how complex this topic was, and how important it was to criticize bad behaviours but also to encourage improvements. Nobody is ever completely guilty or innocent.

Sustainable tourism should be seen as a path leading from “black” to “white”, but going through a very interesting grey “transition” zone.

That’s where certification labels come into play, since they guarantee a specific level of commitment to customers while encouraging professionals to improve their actions.

In 2004, I discovered that it was possible to do sustainable tourism without even being aware of it. I was then in charge of welcoming veterans who had fought on the landing beaches in Normandy for the 60th anniversary of Normandy Landings. This was an international event organized by a local administration, who made sure to associate locals within the commemorations, to create links between generations and to generate economic benefits for all. The objective was to spread the events further than the landing beaches and the 6th of June, in order to allocate tourism flows all along the year 2004, and in every territory within the Normandy region. In short: a sustainable tourism initiative unaware of itself but that felt obvious for the locals. Popular tourism that promoted peace.

From 2006 to 2013, I specialized in sustainable tourism applied to rural territories in developing countries: I worked with local authorities involved in sustainable tourism through decentralised cooperation programs (Cités Unies France) and with associations fighting for fair tourism (ATES).

In particular, I focused on governance issues and how the economic and social objectives of sustainable development can be achieved through tourism. In the meantime, I managed to keep a broad vision of sustainable tourism by attending a colloquium organized every year in Paris on the 2nd of June for the International Day for Responsible Tourism. This event aims to raise awareness about the diversity of issues linked with the sustainable development of tourism: water supply management, protection and promotion of rural heritage, fight against poverty, labels and certifications, fight against climate change, social economy, communication…

In 2014, I joined ATR for its 10th birthday. Today I am also involved in the inter-professional network for sustainable tourism stakeholders ATD (“Acteurs du Tourisme Durable”), gathering tour operators, but also hotel managers, tourism offices, research departments and media. While ATD benefits from the diversity of stakeholders it gathers, ATR focuses on tour operators and their certification.

Now in 2017, how has your view on tourism and sustainability changed?

Now more than ever, I think that every stakeholder in the tourism industry could and should get involved in sustainable development. Responsible tourism shouldn’t be considered as a niche restricted to specialised operators, to specific destinations or to a different way of travelling.

Tourism will have to be sustainable, or it won’t be anymore. Sustainability is about not shooting ourselves in the foot, about protecting the natural, cultural and human environment that is crucial for tourism, as it is a key component when choosing a destination.

I also think that people have integrated the 3 dimensions of sustainable tourism (economic, social and environmental) and that they have understood that it can materialize in several manners, thanks to the many diverse small and large stakeholders.

Now two pitfalls need to be avoided: greenhushing (where tourism operators with a track record in sustainability prefer not to communicate their achievements in fear of being criticized for overselling their sustainability credentials), and greenwashing (freshly involved operators who oversell their short-term sustainability achievements and neglect the need to stay involved in the long run).

That is why label certifications, inter-professional exchanges about good practices and communication about benefits for customers are so important.

Briefly, what is ATR about?

ATR is an association of tour operators who want to act together for responsible tourism. It’s also a label certification controlled by Ecocert Environment, an external certifying body recognized for its independence and its expertise in terms of evaluation.

First created by tour operators specialized in outdoor tourism and tailor-made trips in 2004 (with leaders like Terres d’Aventure and Voyageurs du Monde, and pioneers like Allibert Trekking, Atalante and La Balaguère), the association has opened up to other types of operators since 2014.

In 2017, large international companies like Kuoni France got certified and operators like Circuits by Club Med, Transat and Salaün Holidays have become new members. Our objective for 2020 is to gather 50 members, including 25 certified members.

Sustainable tourism certification and labels are a beautiful tool because they create a common language, which makes it easier to share good practices with other professionals, but also with customers.

During 2008-2013 you were the Director of ATES, the French association for equitable and solidary tourism. Which are your key insights and lessons from that period?

My experience with ATES from 2008 to 2013 has been very interesting. We led a network of stakeholders who were all really involved in several causes: development assistance through tourism, conceptualisation and promotion of the idea of equitable and solidary tourism, and the development of an innovating evaluation system for practices at the crossroads between international solidarity, fair trade and social economy. I shared my views about this demanding approach in an article for the review La Croisée des Routes by the anthropologist Franck Michel.

I have carried out very interesting field operations, for example in Mali and Morocco, and I have met amazing people. But I also realized the limits of ATES, without being able to overcome them.

Collaborators working with ATES members are obviously waiting for development assistance through tourism, but also for a customer volume important enough to allow them to make money. Yet, the market cannot grow much because of three factors: the network’s lack of openness, ATES members’ limited size and difficulties to share commercial actions.

ATES members have argued that the main issues are protection against overtourism, economic crisis or geopolitical context. However, all this cannot hide commercialization issues, which are the main explanation of why fair tourism destinations face very low attendance levels, especially in rural zones away from main touristic attractions. I regret that nobody ever considered building a partnership with ATR members, in order to address this issue.

At that time, I also participated in creating a European network for responsible tourism (EARTH). It is now linked with ISTO and supports the development of a collaborative tourism offer in Paris, such as the MygranTour project with the “foreign community.”

The UN has declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. In your view, which are the main challenges right now regarding the sustainability of travel and tourism in France?

2017 embodies a change in scale and culture of sustainable tourism. Travellers seem ready to understand that responsible tourism can and should express itself on different scales and involve diverse stakeholders, beyond pioneering or specialized tour operators.

Through a survey conducted in 2016 among 7,000 customers and prospects of ATR members, we discovered that responsible tourism has become more universal in people’s opinion. Only 5% of the surveyed customers think that it can be applied only in developing countries. On the other hand, 60% of them think that responsible tourism can be applied everywhere – in France or on the other side of the world.

Now that visitor numbers are skyrocketing in countries like Norway or Portugal, it is interesting to see how travellers are getting more and more careful about how tourism impacts are managed in developed countries. Some destinations, like Morocco or Costa Rica, have been undertaking responsible tourism strategies for a while, but local authorities in Iceland or the Balearic Islands have only just started to take action.

Many professionals still see responsible tourism as a niche and think that it implies to be strongly committed to international solidarity issues. On the other hand, those who have been involved in responsible tourism for a while tend to forget about the importance of marketing. They think that it all goes without saying and don’t communicate their actions enough to customers, service providers or even their own team.

That is why the challenge today is to rally all these stakeholders and to convince them about all the reasons why they should get involved in responsible tourism. Some example are anticipating regulations, motivating employees, and rationalizing costs… Or in other words, maximizing company performances and optimizing tourism impacts on hosting territories.

Which destinations in France are leading in sustainability?

Working on convincing stakeholders also relates to French tourism institutions. Tourism management has been decentralized and that’s a good thing, but the government should promote exchanges between destinations and ensure consistency between all specific actions undertaken on a regional scale for responsible tourism.

In my view, the leading region in sustainability is definitely Brittany. They have already undertaken many actions in collaboration with local professionals:

  • Creation of a “responsible travel” club including key stakeholders;
  • Implementation of a specific offer called “Ma Bretagne sans voiture” (“My Brittany without car”);
  • Green Globe label certification;
  • Hosting sustainable tourism workshops;
  • Cooperation with Morocco, Indonesia, Madagascar…

I also see strong potential for sustainable tourism in Normandy, my home region. Michael Dodds has been appointed as the new head of the agency for the region’s attractiveness. He comes from Brittany so he will be able to share his experience and help this region, where many actions are undertaken but not enough showcased (just like the “Suisse Normande Territoire Préservé” network, or the Barrière group hotels in Deauville).

A new web-show called “Tous acteurs du tourisme durable” (trailer below) also showcased interesting initiatives that are though isolated and uncoordinated. It shows that whatever the age and whatever the way people like to travel, sustainable tourism can make everybody enjoy very diverse experiences, whether it is in the Vosges Mountains, in the Drôme region, in Paris…

Regional and National Nature Reserves are also beautiful spaces that fit into a sustainable development logic linked with tourism, both in France and in French overseas territories.

Imagine you could turn back time and start all over again. Knowing what you know now about the tourism and NGO business, what would you do differently?

I would try to work earlier on building networks between every kind of stakeholders. Even if I have dedicated myself very early to this task, stakeholders were always gathered in groups depending on their profession, their degree of involvement, their home territory…

It would have been great also if we had tried to develop a unique brand, recognized on a national scale among all audiences. Afterwards, we could have organized stakeholders in sub-units depending on their profession, their degree of involvement, their home territory… and work with local or specialized networks.

I also think we would have been more efficient if we had pooled resources and rationalized costs linked with structures management and networks coordination. But that’s actually what we have been doing since 2014 with ATD, and we have been quite successful since we have now 100 members including numerous networks (ATR, ATES, Teragir, Stations Vertes, Pierre & Vacances, Alpine Pearls, CCI France, Grands Sites de France, Fédération Nationale des Gîtes de France…).

Now we still need to promote GSTC criteria among all these stakeholders and eventually to develop common standards that would be recognized internationally by every professional and all customers.

Do you think the Sharing Economy (Airbnb etc) in the long term will benefit or hinder inclusive tourism?

I think that the sharing economy will allow (and actually already allows) great encounters between travellers and local hosts. Obviously, Airbnb has made finding home-stay accommodation easier. BedyCasa as well by the way, and they work with tour operators like Comptoir des Voyages, who tries to develop its tailor-made offer. But I also think about platforms such as Greeters or Vizeat, that invite tourists to immerse themselves into local culture and lifestyle.

With Sharing Economy businesses like Airbnb we are gaining authenticity for sure, even if abuses like tax optimization or unfair competition occur. Conventional stakeholders will have to adapt their offer and fight for a fair tax system.

Your 3 bits of advice to destination managers who want to make their destination more inclusive?

1/ Involve inhabitants and local players from the beginning to the end of touristic development projects in order to make them care about and ready to welcome tourists. Don’t let residents become (sometimes hostile) spectators of the touristic phenomenon but make sure they benefit from it.

I also think that companies benefiting from direct and indirect tourism effects should get more involved. This is, for example, the aim of the certification label “Normandie Mémoire”, that has been credited to cider manufacturers during the 60th anniversary of Normandy Landings. Projects such as the hospitality educational program in Moroccan schools, and communication campaigns about responsible tourism, such as the “Icelandic Pledge” should be displayed and duplicated.

2/ Work on decentralization of the touristic phenomenon in order to spread it over territories and make it more integrated. This implies inviting tourists to explore surroundings (coastlines always have a hidden beautiful countryside) and to travel off-season in order to benefit from mid- and low-season advantages (in terms of gastronomy or events for example). Communicate about unknown and unusual destinations.

When visitor concentration seems unavoidable during specific seasons or at “must-see” attractions, rearrange locations, regulate visits, improve and control visitor flows. In so many cases I don’t understand why museums or historical buildings only open between 11 am and 6 pm, when they could open from 8 am to 8 pm or more. Especially since extended opening hours can raise attendance figures, create jobs and improve customers’ experience when attending less crowded attractions and enjoying picturesque morning and evening lights.

3/ Diversify target customers in order not to depend on a particular market, starting by considering the local audience as a strategic target who should also benefit from the touristic offer within its own territory.

Tourism is very sensitive to economic, health and geopolitical hazards and the local market can often become a safety valve when the international market is decreasing. Develop, satisfy and win local customers’ loyalty is an efficient way to make the ambassadors network of a destination grow. It will also make them feel more concerned about selling (and protecting) their destination, as they will know its wealth (and weaknesses).

Thank you, Julien.

Connect with Julien Buot on LinkedIn.

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