Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Foie gras? Sprawling châteaus? Red wine?
Wait, are we in France? Non non, mesdames et messieurs. But close.
Destination France 2023, Atout France Canada’s annual roadshow, touched down in Toronto Tuesday night (Feb. 21) at the Westin Harbour Castle, with more than 20 France-based suppliers in tow, attracting almost 100 travel pros.
The bustling trade show and networking event for travel advisors and tour operators is designed to showcase France’s latest tourism offering, and this year, the focus is on innovation.
“For us, in the industry right now, it's the most sought-after topic,” said Melanie Paul-Hus, director for Canada at Atout France, France’s tourism development agency. “But it's also one that's hard to understand. What is it that we need to reinvent when tourism is working and booming again? We’re really exploring this topic.”
The image that was created for Destination France’s marketing this year – an artsy illustration that was blown up into giant backdrop for selfies at last night’s event – says it all.
It’s a France-themed collage (created by Calgary-based artist Tyler Lemermeyer) that depicts all sorts of current (and possible) methods of innovation, wrapped together in iconic France imagery, including the Eiffel Tower, a cyclist, trains, mountains, historic sites and cable cars.
Scattered within, there are drawings of phone apps, geotags and voice activation symbols, but also sketches of more futuristic ideas, such as a character wearing a VR headset, a waving robot and a drone delivering a croissant by air.
Virtual (cycling) reality
The idea of using virtual reality, for one, to promote tourism was on full display last night as “Fit Immersion,” a company that lets customers travel to scenic places, with 360° views, while cycling on home trainer bikes, was on site offering demos.
PAX hopped on a bike to give the VR technology a whirl and we were instantly transported to a sunny bike path around the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The realism of this virtual world was unreal.
But that’s just one of many examples. Innovation is also advancing efforts in sustainability, which France is exploring through a partnership with start-up MURMURATION, which tackles overtourism.
Using artificial intelligence, the company utilizes satellite imagery to monitor regions that are experiencing heavy flows of visitors.
“We can see if a site is at risk of being damaged by tourism,” Paul-Hus explained. “It's a solution that can be used worldwide by any destination that would like to keep track of traffic and how people visit sites.”
All eyes on Occitanie
It’s timely technology as tourists return to France in droves.
In terms of overall spend by tourists, the Western European country – known for its medieval cities, alpine villages, fashion houses, museums, monuments, food, vineyards and Mediterranean beaches – has returned to pre-pandemic levels, Paul-Hus told PAX.
Overall arrival numbers, however, are still catching up as markets from Asia, for example, are still in the process of rebounding.
But “numbers are not necessarily what we're looking at right now,” Paul-Hus said. “We'd like to have better tourism.” (Such as longer stays and itineraries that venture into regions beyond Paris).
Air Canada is assisting with this mission as, this June, it will launch year-round service from Montreal to Toulouse, the capital of France’s southern Occitanie region, near the Spanish border.
With buildings that seemingly change hues throughout the day, transitioning from warm oranges to magentas, Toulouse (where Airbus’ headquarters happen to be located) is often referred to as the “Pink City.”
There’s some buzz over this new Air Canada route, which will fly five times a week, which is why Destination Occitanie – the tourism authority that represents the southernmost region in France – kicked things off last night with a presentation about the area.
From tiny towns, villages and hamlets, to UNESCO heritage sites, to wine and mountainous nature routes, Occitania is packed with points of interest, including Pic du Midi de Bigorre, a mountain some 2,877 metres up that has a sky-high observatory and exclusive accommodations.
Mainstream media has also been zeroing in on Occitania – the city of Nîmes, once an outpost of the Roman Empire, known today for its Roman monuments, was named by the New York Times as a top destination to visit in 2023.
Back in the air, Canada’s connectivity with France will ramp up this summer as Air France launches an Ottawa-Paris route in June while boosting frequencies at major hubs.
This summer, Air France will operate up to 50 weekly flights to Paris from five cities, including Ottawa, Quebec City (introduced last year), as well as Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver (destinations served year-round).
Air Transat, meanwhile, will serve Paris, Nice, Nantes and Marseille heavily out of Montreal this summer (Quebec City and Toronto will maintain links to Paris), and WestJet, while it cancelled Europe out of Halifax, will continue its Calgary-Paris route.
“Of course, fares are a bit more expensive, but flights are still very full,” Paul-Hus said, adding that prices could stabilize this summer when there’s a greater offer.
All about sports
France, right now, is focused on getting ready for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, happening July 26 to Aug. 11 that year, as tickets are on sale now.
“For travel advisors, we know there’s challenges because there are some exclusive resellers. But we [Atout France] still can provide guidance for stays during that period, or before, because the games will happen all over France, from Normandy to French Polynesia,” Paul-Hus told PAX.
Sports will be a reoccurring theme in France for the next little while – the country, this September, will also host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Other French notes include the 79th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, which Normandy, a region in northern France, will mark with special commemorations and festivals.
And French all-inclusive operator Club Med also has many projects on the go, including the recent opening of the 4-Trident ski property Club Med Tignes in the Alps, where another property, Val D’Isere, is now the only fully Exclusive Collection village in the region.
Club Med 2, the company’s cruise ship, underwent a multimillion-dollar reno and was back sailing in December 2022 in the Caribbean, and this summer, it will be in the Med.
And Club Med Les Boucaniers in Martinique is getting upgraded with a Zen Oasis section with 56 new rooms, including 20 suites, and a new swimming pool. (The brand’s Punta Cana property, too, is also getting a refresh).
The French destination representatives, suppliers, and local partners such as Air Canada, Air Canada Vacations, Club Med and CroisiEurope, will have met with roughly 350 travel advisors and key industry actors at the end of the week.
Most of France is represented from Région Sud Provence destinations (Nice, Marseille Aix en Provence, Antibes…), to the Nouvelle-Aquitaine (Bordeaux/Cognac/Lascaux), not forgetting a famed châteaux in the outskirts of Paris or in UNESCO listed Loire Valley (Vaux-le-Vicomte, Clos Lucé) and the vibrant city of Nantes on the Atlantic Loire estuary.
Sharing final thoughts, Paul-Hus reminded travel advisors that Atout France is standing by to help with any France-related inquires.
“Many travel advisors have trouble finding DMCs or the right person to handle their groups…they are looking for contacts, they want quick answers. We understand that. If [advisors] have questions, or need contacts, we can help. It’s our job,” Paul-Hus said.
Agents can also follow Atout France Canada on LinkedIn here for updates.
Destination France 2023 takes place in Calgary tonight (Feb. 22) and then wraps up in Vancouver on Thursday.
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