19 Mai 2009
Like most of the world's favored travel destinations, tourism-dependent Paris is looking for ways to ride out what promises to be a dismal, recession-plagued 2009. There are bargains to be had, and the welcome mat will be out, defying Parisians' reputation for a certain aloofness when it comes to receiving visitors.
Yet it's not a lack of tourists that has Paris' city fathers concerned about the future. There will always be recessions, and tourists will always visit Paris, as long as there's a Louvre and an Eiffel Tower and that wondrous food. They have gone there for centuries, and tourism is the single most important industry in the metropolis of over 10 million. It generates more than $10 billion annually and accounts for nearly 150,000 jobs--or 12% of the city's employment. Paris is most frequently credited as the world's tourism capital, with nearly 35 million visitors in 2008 (compared with more than 15 million for No. 2 London, and 12 million for Hong Kong). Unlike many capitals, though, Paris has a unique balance of vacationers and business travelers. The latter have helped Paris maintain its lead over Singapore as the largest convention venue on earth.
Getting to Paris is already becoming easier. While London's maxed-out Heathrow Airport struggles to win approval to build a third runway, Paris' Charles de Gaulle--which has increased capacity 20% since 2006--already operates four, and CDG has even more space set aside for considerable expansion. That will be vital to keep pace with what some forecast to be a 75% to 100% increase in Paris-bound tourism in the next 20 years.
Handling that influx is what concerns the planners most at l'hôtel de ville, the city hall. Paris got a dose of overload when Japanese visitors, armed with the supercharged yen, arrived by the 747-load in the 1980s. Now think about Chinese and Indians arriving in similar numbers.
So how will the city of romance avoid being loved to death? The answer to that is something few might have expected. Increasing Paris' appeal to tourists, experts say, will involve throwing the city's arms open to its surrounding suburbs--including some associated more with blighted housing projects and periodic rioting than with culture-filled summer vacations.
"Whether you call it Paris métropole or a Greater Paris, structuring the city within the framework of an enlarged, better-organized region is a major key to both the future of Paris and its tourism industry," says Jean-Bernard Bros, deputy mayor of Paris in charge of tourism. In tourism terms, that's already happening, with people traveling to or staying near attractions such as Versailles and its famed château to the west or the Marne-la-Vallée home of Disneyland Paris to the east. But the plan is to now go farther in other directions and to all the suburbs.
Officials say that effort involves reintegrating suburbs and populations victimized by racial and economic disadvantage into more affluent French society--a remedial move the rest of the country must also make. But that challenge carries with it a considerable opportunity for Paris-area authorities figuring out how to keep up with an expected boom in tourism over the next two decades.
The city has no place to go but out. Real estate--cramped central Paris is a mere 41 sq. mi. (105 sq km). That may not compare badly with Manhattan's 24 sq. mi. (62 sq km), but it's dwarfed by New York City's total 305-sq.-mi. (790 sq km) reach and the 610 sq. mi. (1,580 sq km) of Greater London. Meanwhile, London and New York City can accommodate residents, businesses and tourists somewhere Paris can't: high in the air, in skyscrapers. One of the elements that make Paris so appealing in the first place is the well-preserved state of the city's elegant buildings and neighborhoods (a product of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann's ambitious redevelopment of the city in the mid-1800s). These places have long been protected by strict zoning laws prohibiting high-rises and imposing harmony on new buildings through regulation.
That safeguarding of the city's authentic Old World look and feel has prevented any Paris version of London's Gherkin from casting a shadow over the Louvre, or a Trump Tower from giving the Palais Garnier a size complex. It similarly required architect Jean Nouvel to design the new Quai Branly Museum to achieve virtual invisibility to protect the grandeur of the neighboring Eiffel Tower. But it has limited the city's hotels to their current, relatively small structures--a handicap to both hoteliers and guests.
The unloved suburbs offer fewer impediments to growth. "The historical decision to preserve the buildings of intra muros Paris means that we're now pushing those walls into the surrounding suburbs in numerous ways," notes Paul Roll, director general of Paris' Office of Tourism and Conventions. As an example, he cites the skyscrapers built in the western enclave of La Défense for companies looking for headquarters, offices and big hotels that couldn't be constructed in town. "In that way, Paris remains protected, while the region benefits from innovative construction similar to London's," he says.
But building towers and big hotels in outlying suburbs, says Roll, "won't get people flocking to them unless there's also business activity, cultural events and attractions and bustling life out there too."
Henriette Zoughebi says there's all that in places Parisians and tourists rarely think of looking. First among them is the northern suburb of St.-Denis--known to much of France as the home of some of the most disaffected and explosive of the nation's unemployment-racked housing projects. Zoughebi, an elected official on the regional council, points out that St.-Denis also hosts the Basilica of St.-Denis--the burial place of French royalty since Clovis I--which French and foreign visitors flock to in spite of the area's less noble reputation.
"What many visitors don't discover until they get to that final resting place of France's ancient rulers is that right outside--in open markets, shops, cultural centers--there are also some of France's most vibrant and creative newer populations," says Zoughebi, who also presides over the Paris--Ile-de-France Regional Tourism Committee. "Once people get out there, they're surprised at what they find and are curious about what else there might be. The answer is 'a lot'--and the same is true of most suburbs. We just have to connect people to them."
To some degree, that's already happening. In addition to visiting St.-Denis's basilica and Versailles's château, tourists are also inspecting Paris' peripheries. Trips to the National Dance Center in northeastern Pantin, the MAC/Val museum of contemporary art in the southeastern suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine and the City of Science and Industry on Paris' northern border with Aubervilliers are on the rise. St.-Denis, meanwhile, boasts popular tours of the architecturally stunning sports stadium Stade de France, which was built to host the 1998 World Cup but has wound up becoming a magnet for the area since then.
Defying some predictions, offices and shops have been built in the Stade de France area since the Cup, and businesses have moved in. Says Zoughebi, "Tourism will also issue from that trend, as people learn they can find new, modern, comfortable, more affordable accommodations and interesting cultural activities a short Métro ride away from central Paris," she says.
Transport is the last and possibly most vital remaining element in improving Paris and its region's future--and not just for tourists. Though Paris' commuter- and subway-rail network is among the most efficient and dense in the world, its rolling stock is in need of significant modernization. Ways need to be found to unclog saturated Parisian lines--particularly the No. 13, serving St.-Denis to the north; the No. 1 main line that all tourists use, which runs east-west from the Etoile to the Bastille; and the parallel RER commuter line. Three different plans that would cost tens of billions of dollars are being studied to renovate and extend existing Métro and commuter lines and build a circular rail link around the city, connecting its first row of suburbs and two airports.
"You can relieve a lot of traffic pressure within Paris itself by allowing suburban commuters to get to work in other suburbs without passing through Paris--which also saves them time and offers visitors a new opportunity of getting around and seeing things too," Roll says.
Certainly, improving tourists' stays is the best way for Paris to hang on to the largest slice of a global tourism pie valued at nearly $900 billion. To that end, Paris is rolling out a campaign introducing new quality standards for businesses serving tourists, the goal being to get Parisians to act with greater hospitality out of economic self-interest (since go-out-of-your-way kindness to strangers is not, shall we say, a particular Parisian strength). Tourism boards have set up information and hospitality offices at airports and throughout metro Paris. To address the looming shortfall of hotel rooms, the municipality plans to add 7,500 rooms to the existing stable of 75,000 over the next few years. To help tourists choose, officials have introduced a fifth star for hotels, a rating many nations already have. And as part of the transport revamp, a direct rail link from central Paris to Charles de Gaulle is expected to go into service in 2013.
Yet even as the effort to reconnect Paris to its suburbs seeks to cater better to tourists, it will also be designed to make the area a more pleasant place for residents. "The real attraction Paris offers visitors is the peerless lifestyle and experience of being a Parisian during their stay," says Bros. "The key to making Paris an even better place to visit is making it a better place to live--for Parisians as well as their neighbors." It's Parisians' town too; the rest of the world just likes to drop in from time to time.
Greater Paris Gallery To see more photos of the architectural development around Paris, go to time.com/paris