The French Tourist Office Problem

Why the French Tourist Office Doesn't Work

France has a huge network of tourist offices. Not only are they to be found in every large town, but even small towns and villages (in tourist areas) are quite likely to have them, though many will close out of the short French holiday season... Tens of thousands of people are employed, they run with big state subsidy , they are extremely useful for visitors to a place, but they are IMHO simply hopeless for the average cycletourist. First off – there are exceptions (Rostrenen take a bow), with pleasant, knowledgeable and keen staff, but in my experience they make up a minority.

If you want leaflets on local museums, or big events in the immediate area then great but the problem is down to the very local structural limits they employ and how that effects the advice they can give to cycle tourists. So what do you see when you enter a Tourist Office. Well of course there are lots and lots of leaflets and guides (some which you have to buy). This could equally be done for nothing by having a rack in the local bar/supermarket etc. So really what the Tourist Office offers is a human being behind the desk...

The problem goes to the very nature of the Tourist Office system itself. Although they are subsidized quite a lot of their running costs are covered by charging tourist businesses a fee to be listed in the various guides and websites produced. So if, for example, only 50% of B&B's register and pay the tourist office any tourist coming and asking for advice about the 'nearest B&B' or even campsite is quite likely to be given misleading information. As I say, there are exceptions but in my considerable experience you are better off asking the local bar owner... In some Tourist Offices I've been faced with staff who don't know if their own village campsite is open or in extreme cases where it is!

There is an impression that many tourist Office staff spend their whole lives in their office and if the campsite owner hasn't visited, paid and left a leaflet about the site they will know little or nothing about it. Likewise asking what restaurants are open on a Monday (for example) will frequently be met with a blank look. Then most frustrating of all, Tourist Offices cover just one commune or small group of communes (a commune is generally an area with a village in its center – towns have larger communes but all are relatively small). So say it is the middle of the day. I've stopped and had my lunch-time menu and pop into the Tourist Office and ask if there is a campsite/hotel/B&B in the next town 10 kms away, or if not that, one after that 20 kms away so I can plan my afternoon. Forget it – they won't know. It's out of their area and all details will be at another Tourist Office covering the appropriate area. If you are very lucky you will find a willing official who will dig around in all the guides and maps and pamphlets and find a guide of campsites in the area. Of course it will only show the x% of campsites that have paid subs to the tourist office – so you might be told that there isn't a campsite in the next town when you know full-well that there is. This is sooo frustrating. Of course the staff will have a website which is usually worse than useless. They'll look through it and find lists of campsites etc, but these will be in the form of what is in each commune. So unless you know what commune you are going to end up in (and no map shows communes) you won't be able to find accommodation!

This isn't helped by the fact that commune boundaries are highly illogical. For example our local campsite is in Gouarec – it's 300m from the village centre. Except of course that it isn't. Because the campsite is on the other side of the river it is on land in the commune of Plelauff. Plelauff village is 4 kms from the campsite. So anyone looking for a campsite in Gouarec would look on the Tourist Office website or a guide, or ask a nearby Tourist Office to be told that “no” - Gouarec doesn't have a campsite, and unless you knew that Plelauff was the adjacent commune there would be no way of tracking that campsite down! (Note - this has now changed in this specific example...) but there are many others I could find.

True story – a couple of years back Kate and I were cyclecamping in the Limousin. We visited Tourist Offices every day for a week, and not one was any use to us. We went into a large Tourist Office that appeared to have three staff. We planned to do 40 miles that day and so asked if they had a guide to campsites in the Limousin (I knew they'd be clueless personally). The three of them spent 15 minutes going through drawers and then triumphantly produced a tourist map. On opening it we found that it showed museums, hotels, swimming pools (but only those who subscribed) but not campsites. Another 10 minutes followed and we were given another tourist maps – close inspection showed that the campsites were in fact camper-van stops. “Do you have anything on the internet?” - “No”. “Do you have a computer linked to the internet?” - “Yes” - by now the day was running through my fingers and I was not a happy bunny so striding behind the desk I showed the young lady in charge 'Google Maps' – zoomed into the area and searched for 'camping'. Of course lots of campings came up – I copied the details and left the Tourist Office having done some free staff training. .

Still skeptical? Well here's a classic example - a screen shot taken from the website France velo Tourism

voie verte website

Now normally this should be a good thing. A map provided by a tourist office link-up that covers both a wide area and is interactive. I, pretending to be a cyclecamper, have ticked the box to show the available campsites and low-and-behold the campsite at Mur de Bretagne has come up - brilliant. Except it isn't. On that map there should also be the campsite at Gouarec and one at Caurel all on the cyclepath. In fact - just off the top of my head I can count 8 other campsites not marked... So that whole site with it's flashy map is giving you maybe 10% of the information you need. Google Maps on the other hand picks up 9 campsites in the same area. I rest my case... Likewise if you do an internet search for 'chambre D'Hote' in an area (go on – try it “Gouarec Chambre D'Hote” will do) you will be faced with a blizzard of sites all listing maybe 5% of the available places, sometimes none at all (work that out) – all have been paid for by the owners and all are useless. Google is the future – the Tourist Office could make an effort and integrate with it or produce a far more effective alternative but they choose not to. They remain primarily a smiling face that hands out leaflets and advice for their immediate area. And that - at the current state of play - is my advice. Get to a computer and log into Google and search for what you want on 'Maps'. Not everything is there, but more are there than on any tourist site and the numbers will only increase. Rant over.

A Small Favour

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