Service with a smile: France struggles to keep tourists happy


PARIS (eTN) — It has glorious architecture, fabulous museums and exquisite food but France is worried that all this may not be enough to secure its position as the world’s top tourism destination.

A new study shows that despite progress over recent years, France is still struggling to shed its image as an unfriendly nation of surly waiters and grumpy taxi drivers, compared to Italy and Spain, seen as more hospitable.

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Some 62 percent of tourists who came to France in 2006 rated the welcome they received as “satisfactory,” up from 58 percent in 2003, according to the study by the IPSOS institute.

“There is progress, but it’s still not enough. Making tourists feel welcomed still remains the weak point of our tourism sector,” said the junior minister for tourism, Luc Chatel.

“Nowadays tourists compare a lot more, they are much more demanding and there are destinations that offer top quality customer service and this can lead to a loss of tourists for France,” he added.

The most visited country in the world, France welcomed 78 million foreign tourists in 2006, an increase of 2.7 percent from 2005, according to the tourism ministry.

France’s struggle to offer service with a smile comes amid World Tourism Organization predictions of a tourism boom, with the number of travelers worldwide expected to double to 1.6 billion by 2020.

“Hospitality means a smile from an immigration officer when you present your passport, or ‘bonjour’ from a taxi driver or a department store that offers special services for tourists,” Economy Minister Christine Lagarde told a recent conference of leaders from the hospitality industry.

The tourism ministry has brought together hotel managers, restauranteurs, airport and train authorities as well as taxi and border officials to try to improve service to foreign guests.

A study by the Maison de la France tourism promotional agency showed Italy to be ranked as “friendly and warmer than France” when it comes to welcoming tourists.

Foreigners rank France’s cultural attractions and food as its top draws while hospitality gets the last spot on the list.

Despite efforts to offer good service at airports for example, only 54 percent of Americans say they are satisfied with the welcome they received upon arrival in France.

The latest push from the tourism ministry comes after Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe in July launched a charm offensive after a separate study showed Paris ranked 52nd on a list of 60 cities when it came to hospitality.

Last month the hotel industry issued an alarming report showing that one in four hotels was in a state of disrepair and that 24 percent of customers complained of rude or incompetent service.

The report by the Committee for the Modernisation of the French Hotel Trade blamed falling profit margins, badly-paid staff and conservative management for the poor state of the country’s 18,000 officially-classified hotels.

But Maison de la France director Thierry Baudier said criticism of French hospitality may be exaggerated and that if tourists keep coming, France must be doing something right.

“We can’t say that the 78 million tourists who come to France every year are all masochists,” said Baudier.