ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les atouts du tourisme social
by Cyrille Poy
Published in l'Humanité on 29 July 2003
Translated Sunday 7 May 2006, by
An interview with Pierre Combes, mayor of Nyons, a country town in the Drôme department, between the Rhone and Geneva. He has long been active in the promotion of “social tourism”, having headed up both VAL and the advocacy group Tourisme Action Concertation (1). VAL is a non-profit organisation combating desertification in rural areas and promoting social policies to create tourism infrastructures that will benefit the local population in the Massif Central region in south and central France.
HUMA: What does “social tourism” refer to today?
PIERRE COMBES: The National Open-Air Tourism Union (UNAT) brings together 58 non-profit tourist organisations in France - most of those involved in this sector. This represents a total of 242,000 beds, of which 160,000 are in villages de vacances - holiday villages. UNAT was set up shortly after 1945 and its original goals have changed very little since. The first is to provide quality tourism at attractive prices to as many people as possible. The second, which VAL shares with its partner organisations, is to promote authentic tourist locations and to organise holiday stays which focus on social, learning, cultural and sports components. Social tourism has been the key to the development of certain isolated regions. Its goal is to revive the local economy. Besides UNAT there are examples of social tourism that came out of the corporate sector, with more than 200,000 beds. Like the programme of the EDF - the nationalised electricity grid -which allows workers and their families to go away for their holidays at a reasonable cost.
HUMA: Who are the clients of the holiday villages?
PIERRE COMBES: At VAL, our group, we have found a significant reduction in the number of people with the Holiday Vouchers (“Bons Vacances”), provided by the state family allowance budget. Twenty years ago, 40% of our clients were able to come, thanks to this programme. Currently, in France as whole, on average fewer than 20% of social-tourism holidaymakers are recipients of these vouchers (and 7-8% for VAL’s network). Financial support from social security and the company worker-management committees (“comités d’entreprise”) has been declining each year. Yet more than 40% of our clients receive financial support of one kind or another. Meanwhile, the criteria for being officially recognised as providing “social and family tourism” are the requirements to offer prices depending on the size of the family and to provide accommodation to at least 80% of families during the school holidays. On the other hand, if you compare the social and occupational categories of our clients over the last 20 years, you see a net decline in unskilled workers and lower-level employees (down nearly 11%), but a 10-point increase in numbers of lower-level employees, teachers and retired people.
HUMA: What are the major changes happening now in this sector?
PIERRE COMBES: We are not building any more holiday villages nowadays, because the funding from Europe, from the State, the regions and the departments isn’t enough to do more than renovate and maintain existing villages. Each year, the State, through the Ministry of Tourism, provides a little more than 6 million euros for the whole network of holiday villages. That’s not much when you see that renovating a single village costs between 2.3 and 3 million euros. Moreover, we don’t have the right to low-interest loans, which are available for subsidised housing.
The most striking recent change has been the way that our organisations, which are essentially not-for-profit, are being forced to pay taxes - we’ve fought against this for 20 years. Since January 1st 2000, non-profit organisations like ours have to pay the same tax as private companies: VAT, a tax on professional activities and company taxes. This has increased our prices by 3-6% and has forced some organisations to privatise. We are still less expensive than private operators in the same sector, such as “Pierre et Vacances” - we’re 20-30% cheaper than them - whose approach to tourism is commercial rather than social. Our goal is to promote and protect the general interest, not share-holders.
No one would have constructed the holiday accommodation with 10,000 beds in the Massif Central 20 years ago if VAL hadn’t been there. These villages made money, but not enough for the capitalist system. We are happy breaking even. The danger with making us liable to taxes is that our groups will become part of the private sector and there will be a blurring of our identity. We need to defend our identity alongside the market economy. Particularly in Brussels, where we are fighting to make sure the idea of “general interest” is recognised. This is a way of making sure the term “social economy” becomes part of the vocabulary of Europe.
(1) TAC (Tourisme Action Concertation) is a working group on the future of public-interest tourism, bringing together seven non-profit groups: VVF Vacances, VTF L’Esprit Vacances, Renouveau, Villages Clubs du soleil, Vacances Bleues, Vacanciel and VAL.
First published in l’Humanité 29 July 2003