Responsible tourism in Provence

Provence is lauded for the way it has kept much of its ‘authentic’ character while having been one of the most popular travel destinations in Europe for decades. And there is a lot of truth in that. But if you want to find the ‘real Provence’ then you need to head away from the coast, into the rural countryside and small, isolated villages that dot its hills. Here the essentials of Provence continue to thrive. Walking and cycling trails through forests and fields; historic farmers markets where the tables wilt under the weight of fresh produce; games of boules that go on all afternoon long, and café culture where the distinctive Provençal accent holds sway.

Provence keeping it real

Lavender tourism

The ways in which tourism to a destination can be affected by celebrity endorsement and social media are fascinating. In 2008 a Chinese TV show shot a brief romance scene in the lavender fields of Provence’s Valensole plateau. By 2018, fuelled by the show’s success, around 60,000 Chinese tourists were thought to be visiting the area every summer, many of them attempting to recreate the scene. Now, reading that, one might assume that Provence is yet another destination to fall victim to the scourge of overtourism. And yet, while some locals would probably see it that way, others look at it more positively. They see a recent shift in the way many of these ‘lavender tourists’ travel through the region, some travelling independently, staying overnight, making an effort to seek out genuine Provençal food, while some local businesses are hiring Chinese-speaking guides to help them encourage visitors to engage more thoroughly with Provence.
It’s obvious that a destination being popularised by celebrity can have a massive impact on visitor numbers. One need only look at the French Riviera, coast of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, to see how Hollywood and genuine royalty can draw in the jet set crowd, the super-wealthy, and those looking for a little taste of that glamour themselves. In Cannes, the population can triple during the summer months.

Rural depopulation

Many parts of Europe, and France is no exception, suffer from rural depopulation. As traditional industries decline, people depart for urban areas in search of employment, leaving behind them hollowed-out ghost communities. Holidaying in rural Provence, travelling with responsible operators, staying in locally owned and operated accommodations, and crucially eating and spending locally – all of these contribute massively to helping Provence retain its authewnticity. Responsible tourism in Provence supports independent small businesses, and revives old industries, encouraging people to stay, and new people to move in. One need only look at the Frogs’ House in the village of Saint Jeannet as an example, where everything you eat is sourced from local markets, where you’re encouraged to visit with an independent olive oil producer, and where the community is welcoming of each and every traveller coming through, ensuring that you have an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding holiday.

That doesn’t mean everything is hunky dory in Provence. Complaints from visitors about the noise of the cicadas in one village are ridiculous. But Provence is a place where it is wonderfully easy to travel responsibly, and we see encouraging signs that rumours of the death of the French countryside are greatly exaggerated.

A load of bull

Bullfighting in Provence dates back to Roman times, and is still practiced today, with some of the most famous and well-attended events taking place in the Roman amphitheatre of Arles, as well as in small towns nearby. This is a bloodthirsty and cruel spectacle that is thankfully, slowly dying out around Europe.

There are two different types of bullfighting in Provence. Corridas is the Spanish-style, where the bull is ritually and unpleasantly stuck with barbs, before being finished off with a sword through the heart by the matador.

The second type, the Course Camarguaise, can on the face of it seem more ethical. Stemming from the Camargue region, it involves groups of young men skillfully plucking ribbons from the bulls’ horns, leaping over or behind barriers to protect themselves. The bulls used are neither injured nor killed, and at the finish they return to the fields to live out the rest of their lives in peace, the best performers usually escaping the slaughterhouse.
In the Course Camarguaise, a bull might put up with 15 minutes of torment in the ring once every few weeks or so, in a career lasting years, before retirement. Now, some would and do argue that in fact this is a small price to pay for the bull to avoid going to the slaughterhouse, and since no blood is shed in the ring, it’s not a cruel practice. We disagree entirely.

Any form of ‘entertainment’ where animals are induced to perform against their natural instincts cannot be justified. The Course Camarguaise may not be as violent as corridas but it is still, essentially, a form of torture for the bull. Further, attending these events encourages the wider spectrum of bullfighting and bullrunning events to continue, and if the same organisers are involved, can also provide funding for Corridas.

Bullfighting of any sort might be exciting to watch, it might demonstrate amazing feats of daring. But it doesn’t make participants ‘real men’ by any measure. All it does is show off the unthinking cruelty of man towards beast that many sadly still consider entertainment.

Many Provence tourism operators will tell you that if you don’t want to see blood being shed, then avoid any events that are advertised with corrida or ‘mise à mort’. Better still would be to give any kind of bullfighting events whatsoever a wide swerve.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Andrew Lawson] [Lavender tourism: pxhere] [Course Camarguaise: Heribert Bechen]
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