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Interview with Pascal Languillon
"The French government has been very disappointing ... not playing the proactive role that it should. To put it simply, there are very few specific government policies on tourism and the environment"
Pascal Languillon, an expert in sustainable tourism, is the director and founder of the French Ecotourism Association(www.ecotourisme.info) and of France’s leading responsible travel online guide, Voyagespourlaplanete.com. He holds a Masters degree in Environmental Science from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, where he specialized in the design of sustainable tourism strategies at the regional level. Convinced that sound ecotourism can be part of the solution to protect, conserve, and restore the last tropical forests on Earth while improving the quality of life of its inhabitants, Pascal Languillon then worked in the Ecuadorian Amazon where he designed and implemented an ecotourism project, working with the indigenous Shiwiar community. Since then, he has worked as an ecotourism consultant on five continents on various projects funded by the European Union, the Inter American Development Bank, and USAID, among others. Mr. Languillon has extensive travel experience, having visited over forty five countries in the last ten years and numerous ecotourism projects. He recently authored books about responsible travel for Lonely Planet, Le Guide du Routard, and for The Chic Collection. Passionate about nature, he is also a keen photographer; his photos appear at www.greentravelwriter.com
French Ecotourism Association (FEA)
ECOCLUB.com: Considering that France is the world's leading country in terms of tourism arrivals, the mission of the French Ecotourism Association is particularly important. So, what are the policy aims of the French Ecotourism Association and your main achievements so far, and how satisfied are you with your impact on & recognition from the French Tourism Industry?
Pascal Languillon: It is indeed interesting to note that with 80 millions tourist arrivals per year, France is the world’s most visited country, but that the image of France is very seldom associated with ecotourism. For most tourists, France is about Paris, the French Riviera, and possibly the chateaux. It’s about romance, gastronomy, shopping….While it is true that these aspects of our country are marvellous, for me the true splendour of France lays in its countryside and mountains, in its medieval villages and wonderful food and wineries. Our goal when setting up the association at the end of 2005 was to prove that France is also about nature, and that there is a new vibrant community of eco-minded people working in the hospitality industry who want to showcase our natural and cultural heritage while protecting it. Back at the time, even if it’s just a few years behind, the term ecotourism was almost unheard of in France. Our biggest achievement has been to spread the message and values of ecotourism so fast that the term is now widely used in the French tourism industry and explained in hundreds of articles each year. We are really proud to have become one of the main forces driving the tourism change in this country. We now have more than 350 members from all sectors of the industry (hotels, tour operators, campsites, etc.), and still growing. We also represent a number of foreign ecotourism operators interested to promote their activities to the French market. In just over three years, it’s a good result, but of course, there is still a considerable amount of work to be done, as France has tens of thousands of tourism companies and only a small portion of them are sustainable.
ECOCLUB.com: With France's rich and vibrant political culture, one would expect that a distinct French approach to Ecotourism, somehow different than the "Anglosaxon" one, must be emerging, as in many other economic, social & cultural sectors. Is that also the case with French Ecotourism, outbound and inbound? For example, is there a greater emphasis on social issues such as labour rights or in decision-making?
Pascal Languillon: I agree with you that French people are generally very concerned about social rights and cultural aspects than about environmental preservation, but this is also changing. The concept of “Fair Tourism” is quite well developed here, with many small tour operators planning trips to Africa, Asia or South America and redistributing parts of the profits, etc. with a lot of cultural sensitivity. However most members of the French Ecotourism Association are accommodation providers located in France, and as such focus more on environmental preservation than social welfare, because there are already many laws in place to ensure working conditions are quite good in the country - the issues are not the same as in the developing world. The main action our members do to stimulate the local economy is to strive to buy locally as much as possible.
ECOCLUB.com: Important issues for any type of association, in particular those striving for change rather than preserving the status quo, include Membership eligibility criteria, representation and decision-making. What is the approach of the French Ecotourism Association in these respects? For example would you accept a large French multinational hotel chain as Members, and would they get 1 vote, or 1 vote for each of their hotels? How do you avoid domination by those who would rather not change a thing?
Pascal Languillon: We started as a somewhat narrow association with very strict eligibility criteria, only accepting small to medium scale companies operating in natural areas, though respecting the “official” definition of ecotourism. However throughout the years we understood that if change is to happen in the tourism industry as a whole, we have to include bigger players and encourage them to change, rather than excluding them on the sole basis of being too big or located in town. In that sense, I think we evolved from being a purely ecotourism association to a broader sustainable tourism association, but we feel this was a desirable evolution. After all, when I am going on holidays or on a business trip, I invariably pass through cities, so why exclude city hotels from the positive change that we are trying to bring? We have started to accept application from larger hotels, but we are careful to only accept those which are really active in sustainable development and certified by recognized labels such as the European Ecolabel. They get exactly the same attention and services from the association as the very small companies, and in that sense we don’t feel that they exert some form of domination over the others.
ECOCLUB.com: How worried are you about the impacts of the current economic crisis and possibly a flu epidemic on French Tourism? Would French Ecotourism fare better or worse than mainstream tourism?
Pascal Languillon: I am not too worried about the consequences of this economic crisis on French tourism, as it’s been proven in the past that tourism remains very strong even in troubled times. The flu epidemic crosses all borders so why stop travelling? At a personal level, I actually hope that the economic crisis will have positive outcomes in the medium term, that it will restore some of the values the world seems to have forgotten. More specifically for tourism, I hope that it will help bring sustainable tourism to the agenda more often, and that big resort developments which are only money driven and not sensitive to the environment and local communities will come to a halt. It’s so sad to see so much of the beauty of the world ruined by tourism…
ECOCLUB.com: How would you evaluate current Tourism & Environment government policies in France? What are the main problems, and is in your view the government dealing with them convincingly
Pascal Languillon: I unfortunately think that the French government has been very disappointing on this subject, not playing the proactive role that it should. To put it simply, there are very few specific government policies on tourism and the environment. It’s as if the ministry of environment and the ministry of tourism had never met. Recently we upgraded our national quality rating system for hotels (from 1 to 5 star), but this did not include any environmental concerns. Other countries, such as New Zealand for instance, integrate environmental and social criteria in their overall quality rating system, called Qualmark… Many laws are in fact refraining people from building eco-friendly hotels. For instance it’s very difficult to get approval to build natural swimming pools with self cleaning plants, where as this system is well developed in Germany and elsewhere. The French Ecotourism Association never got any help or funding from the government either. For many parts of the country, it is almost too late anyway: a great section of the coast is ruined forever, many ski stations are horrible scars in the landscape... the legacy of the 60s and 70s, you see. But there are also some wonderful regional and national parks that are well preserved and well taken care of, with excellent governmental work there…
ECOCLUB.com: In terms of image there seem to be (at least) two contrasting versions of France: one of a green, vibrant rural tradition with wineries & chateaux, and a grim one of deprived banlieues, heavy-handed police, unemployment and racial tensions. Can Tourism, or urban ecotourism perhaps, offer reliable solutions for the less-privileged?
Pascal Languillon: You are right, France is about all of the above, but tourists only get to see the good sides of the country. I do believe in the power of nature as a tool to strengthen the links between human beings and generate happiness, and therefore think that some of the less-privileged people would benefit greatly in discovering some of our countryside. Luckily, there are many governmental programs in place to ensure that the poorest people get great discounts on certain accommodation providers and train tickets, etc. However if your question was if tours in the “banlieues” could benefit local people like we hear of tours in the favelas of Rio, my answer would be no.
ECOCLUB.com: Tourism projects, in the 'developing' world are regularly funded by multilateral institutions, national and international aid agencies, who argue that tourism entrepreneurship can be successful as a poverty-reduction strategy in resource-poor areas. Critics fear that these agencies follow specific geopolitical agendas, and that they mindlessly or deliberately apply neoliberal tourism recipes (albeit with a caring veneer) that ultimately destroy communities. Do you believe that this type of external funding is really needed and beneficial when we are talking about genuine, small-scale, ground-roots Ecotourism?
Pascal Languillon: I have worked on several donor funded projects and heard of many others, and it is true that they rarely succeed in establishing thriving tourism companies within poor areas. I would not say however that the problem is that we are trying to impose our western neoliberal vision. Sustainable tourism is also about business and profits, so this is not shocking me. There can’t be benefits to the environment and to communities if there are no tourists, and in the great majority of cases these donor funded projects have capacity building activities but no marketing plan. They create a lot of hope within communities, but when donors leave, tourists have still not arrived, creating a lot of bitterness locally. I think the vision of donors and consultants alike is too often idealistic and naïve, trying to set up tourism projects where there is no market for it… but in some cases these projects are very beneficial. I currently work on a sustainable tourism project in Mali for the Global Sustainable Tourism Alliance funded by USAID, and, on top of many trainings we have done to improve the professionalism of local hoteliers and guides, have designed the first promotion website for the wonderful region of Dogon Country (Web: www.dogoncountry.com). Our idea is to generate awareness about the area, its biodiversity and fantastic culture, as well as educate tourists about how to travel responsibly in the region.
ECOCLUB.com: What percentage of French travellers would you say seriously consider environmental and social issues when choosing their holiday? Is this share steady, or changing in recent years, and does your Association undertake or plan any initiatives to raise awareness?
Pascal Languillon: Some recent studies have shown that about 5% of French travellers are now actively looking for responsible holidays when they travel, but that as much as 70% say they’re interested in that concept. These figures have increased a lot recently, and I am quite confident when I say that green travel has really boomed in France in the past few years. It is fair to say that our association has been at the forefront of this awareness building, through media outreach and website marketing. Our leading website www.voyagespourlaplanete.com is now the main source of information for responsible travel in France.
ECOCLUB.com: Eco-certification & Carbon-offsetting for Travel are considered controversial by some who see them as too pro-market, inefficient, and unsuitable in the quest for another Tourism, or in alternative forms of Tourism. What is your personal evaluation as well as the official stance of the French Ecotourism Association on these two issues?
Pascal Languillon: Regarding Eco-certification, I believe that it is a valuable tool as it provides an incentive and guidelines for some businesses to become more sustainable. However I feel that often the most authentic ecotourism businesses are small scale and not certified, as they simply can’t afford labels. I also feel that some labels are quite loose in their criteria, so I understand criticism there. Regarding carbon-offsetting, it also has its pros and cons. We all agree that it’s better to reduce carbon emissions rather than offsetting them. However I still believe in the power of travel as a life changing experience and wonderful way to connect to the planet and its people. I have to admit that I fly a lot myself for both business and pleasure, and carbon offsetting then appears to be a small contribution we can make to the climate. The official stance of the French Ecotourism Association is the same on these matters.
ECOCLUB.com: You have undertaken tourism projects with communities, including the Shiwiar community in Ecuador. What were the key lessons you learned from that experience? Would you say that Ecotourism is at its most genuine when it is community-based and community-owned / family-owned, or do property patterns do not matter?
Pascal Languillon: I have learnt that community-based tourism is, at least in theory, the most genuine form of ecotourism, but that it is also full of challenges. We often tend to idealize it, as it brings back a dream we may have of an equitable world and this quest for justice. Unfortunately, I found out in many cases, including in the beautiful Shiwiar community with whom I worked, that issues of jealousies, attempts of dominations from some individuals or even corruption issues can occur, and that even community-based tourism is rarely perfectly fair to all community members. On the other hand, some fantastic ecolodges are privately owned and provide great benefits to the environment and to local people. Is it a sin to own a business and have people work there? I don’t think so.
ECOCLUB.com: Finally, what are your personal plans & aspirations for the future?
Pascal Languillon: I want to pursue my work of sensitizing as many people as possible about the importance of practicing and favouring sustainable tourism. It’s really the beauty of the world, its diverse people and wonderful nature that are my daily fuel when I wake up in the morning – and the true happiness of my life. I want to see and feel all of this beauty and share my passion with others, may it be through photography, writing books or developing new websites that promote green travel.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much.
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