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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le tourisme social à la croisée des chemins

by Christophe Payet

Social Tourism at Crossroads

Translated Thursday 4 September 2008, by Alice Charlton

Leisure. Since the post-war years, social tourism associations have enabled the democratisation of holidays. Faced with constant cuts in subsidies, it is now increasingly difficult for them to fulfil their mission.

Biarritz (Pyrénées-Atlantiques)

Special correspondent

On the Françon estate, Biarritz: a magnificent manor house with historic monument status, sunshine illuminating the windows; at the end of the 12 hectare grounds, the Lescure and Lafleur families are diving into the pool, to the great pleasure of their five children. But they are not lords and ladies of the manor; they are settled Roma from Bernos-Beaulac in Gironde, and it is one of the first times that they have been on holiday. This is thanks to their trip being funded up to 70% by the Caisse d’allocation familiale (CAF), the family allowance office, which also owns this estate, now transformed into a holiday village. The site is managed by Vacances Toursime Famille (VTF: Family Tourism Holidays), a social tourism association

Moïse Lafleur, a self-employed painter has had financial problems since losing his driving licence. “Even by tightening our belts, we wouldn’t have been able to go away this year,” he explains. But this break was needed. “We’re here to up our spirits. It was about time. This will enable us to mix better with the kind of people who ignore us, or even despise us.” Likewise, without help from the CAF, Marie would not have been able to come on holiday with her twelve-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son. On income support, she has only paid €45 to spend a week relaxing on this splendid estate, ten minutes from the beach. A long way from the low-income housing where she lives in Bordeaux, getting away was essential for her too. “I needed a change of air. It’s the second time I have been away. I’m fed up of Bordeaux.” She takes full advantage of the holiday cheques. “I can give my daughter pony rides. In the end, the week has cost me about €100 all in.”

It is a fact that, since the post-war years, social tourism associations have played a key role in the democratisation of holidays. At the heart of the initiative is the not-for-profit principle and non-payment of directors and capital, and the accommodation of at least 40% of families aided. “It’s all about providing affordable accommodation that is suitable for families,” summarises Jean-Paul Giraud, managing director of VTF and major player in the sector. Nowadays social tourism is still priced about 25% lower than equivalent provision in the private sector, and it offers, in partnership with CAF, breaks for the most disadvantaged households. But they are not the only ones. On the Françon estate, working-class holidaymakers rub shoulders with people from very different backgrounds. This mix is important to Jean-Paul Giraud. “We want tourism that is open to all, not just allotted to the most disadvantaged.”
Yannick, for example, manages a research department. He is holidaying on the Françon estate for the first time, with his banker wife and their eleven-month-old son. The main reason they came here was because it is family-friendly. “The village is suitable for children. Almost everything is included. And it’s still three times cheaper than the same type of accommodation in the private sector.” But he points out that, “it is not given away either. I am not sure that really badly off families would be able to afford it."

It is the same situation for Odile and her companion Virginie. They are both civil servants and came with their two children, two cousins and grandparents. “The attraction is having everything included: it’s full-board and it is a contained area for the children," stresses Odile. But the problem is the same. “It is still expensive. Not everyone can afford it. Luckily we have had help from the grandparents and we set aside a large budget for holidays."

Although the prices remain attractive, social tourism associations have for some time been going through a period of real crisis due to the continued reduction of public subsidies. Currently the only source of finance is regional. This support therefore varies greatly from one geographical area to another. The result is that VAL-VVF, Vancanciel, Renouveau and VTF, the four main players in the sector, often have to increase their prices faster than rises in the cost of living.
“We have been given a social role, but the state is pulling out,” explains Jean-Paul Giraud. “Without support, we will have to pass on more and more of our investment costs to holidaymakers.” A consequence has already been seen: “Our target public cannot pay for holidays with us without the benefit of large grants from the CAF." As proof, with an average €3,500 to €4,500 household income, VTF’s clients are well above the median income of €1,314. Average households, not well-off enough to pay for their stay but already too well-off to claim benefit, are relatively absent from Françon.

Isabelle’s case in particular is pertinent. The real cost of her week in Biarritz with her two children is €1,350. A former unsalaried manager of a press attaché company, her previous income of about €2,700 stopped her from going away with her family. “I could not put aside €1,350 for holidays, even less for this type of village. It’s very expensive for what it is.” After a break from working, this year she found herself on the minimum wage. She also benefits from the holiday grants from the CAF. “60% of the break is taken care of. With my two children, I don’t pay more than €547 for the week. Without the grant, I would not come here for sure.”

Faced with this situation, social tourism associations are finding themselves at a crossroads, with two options to choose from. The first is to completely change the target clientele, concentrating on more well-heeled holidaymakers. “But that then goes against the whole political project,” Jean-Paul Giraud laments. Certain companies have already chosen this path, such as VVF, (Villages vacances familles) a well-known holiday village company that was originally a social tourism association and has now re-structured and become Belambra-VVF. Or there is the second option. “We fight to get subsidies and increase partnerships with social organisations,” says the director of VTF determinedly. “But one thing is for sure, on our own we will not be able to continue with our mission.”

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