How France Is Bringing Back American Tourists

Much to the delight of café owners, hotels, and museums, the amounts spent by American tourists in France rose dramatically last year – to even higher than pre-Covid levels. The challenge is now to entice them away from Paris and the French Riviera.
© Colin Elgie

Better than before the pandemic! The French tourism sector achieved a spectacular recovery in 2022. Totaling 57.9 billion euros, spending by international visitors was 2.1% higher than in 2019, despite the absence of Chinese and Japanese tourists, who were still hampered by Covid-19 restrictions. The biggest jump in these numbers is among American travelers, who spent 5.5 billion euros last year – up 34% compared with three years ago. This is an excellent performance, especially as there were fewer U.S. tourists than before the pandemic (3.7 million in 2022, compared with 4.7 million in 2019). Inflation and a near-equal dollar-euro exchange rate favoring American visitors help to explain these numbers. But that’s not the whole story, according to Anne-Laure Tuncer, director of Atout France U.S.A., a branch of the public agency tasked with promoting the French tourism sector abroad: “After the pandemic, American customers wanted to travel more and treat themselves!”

France also benefits from its appeal among a wealthy – and ultra-wealthy – American clientele, whose purchasing power has increased in the last three years. Studies by Atout France have painted a picture of typical American tourists: They take trips lasting an average of eight days, mostly alone or as a couple; they stay in luxury hotels (four or five stars, or palaces); they belong to Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980); and they prefer Paris (some 70% of U.S. visitors come to the French capital). Despite recent social unrest and the often-unflattering image portrayed in American media, the draw of the City of Lights, with its culture and romantic atmosphere, is still strong. The world’s top tourist destination has also been reaping the rewards of two popular Netflix series, Emily in Paris and Lupin, since 2020.

According to Atout France, one of the main challenges is enticing this demographic away from the capital and the Côte d’Azur, the only destinations with direct flights from the United States. “If we want Americans to venture into other regions, we have to create an offering that makes it worthwhile,” says Anne-Laure Tuncer. “Many of them are unaware that France is barely as big as Texas, and that it has an excellent railroad network. Bordeaux is just two hours from Paris on the high-speed TGV trains!”

© Colin Elgie

Developing the Culinary Tourism Menu

French art de vivre – starting with wine and gastronomy – is a major asset, and initiatives abound. The Cité du Vin, a wine museum and events space opened in Bordeaux in 2016, paved the way in helping visitors to discover a whole region. “Americans know about Bordeaux wine, of course, but not necessarily about the tourist offering that goes with it,” says Anne-Laure Tuncer. “We had to show them that they could explore the vineyards in Bordeaux, but also the cities of Cognac and Biarritz, and even take a river cruise.” In Burgundy, Dijon has adopted a similar strategy with the Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie et du Vin, which opened last year on a campus spanning 750,000 square feet and centered around the site of a former hospital. After it opened, CNN Travel included Dijon in its best destinations to visit in 2022.

The promotion of the country’s wine and food heritage has even led to unexpected alliances. In 2021, three regions long seen as rivals joined forces to create the Vallée de la Gastronomie, a 385-mile itinerary from Dijon to Marseille. “We have to expand our perimeters,” says Laurent Cormier, delegate director of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes tourism board. “We started by focusing on the fact that we have all offered exceptional products for thousands of years, and together we developed the terroir concept to introduce visitors to the full extent of our regions.” The initiative has certified more than 440 businesses along with some 30 “memorable experiences,” such as a tasting of all 33 grand cru wines from the Burgundy appellation across three days, and a pâté en croûte workshop led by a Lyon chef.

Discovering France by bicycle is another experience increasingly popular among Americans. “Cycling tourism is at the core of our strategy,” says Laurent Cormier, highlighting ViaRhôna, a cycling route spanning almost 500 miles from the banks of Lake Geneva to the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. A U.S. tour operator has even specialized in the combination of cycling tourism and art de vivre. DuVine was founded in 1996 to bring American cyclists to the vineyards and villages of Burgundy. “When you’re on a bicycle, it really engages your senses,” says its founder, Andy Levine. “You’re able to smell the terroir, you can watch people working in the vineyards, you can start conversations easily, and you can sort of go back in time when you stop in markets in small villages.” Backed by 25 years of experience, DuVine now offers around 15 routes through France, from Corsica to Normandy and the Loire Valley, and has extended its services to 25 countries including Italy and Portugal.


Golf, Rugby, Culture, and History

Major events are another sporting initiative used to attract tourists – but this time with a focus on spectators. Two of the biggest competitions are the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this June, and the Tour de France in July – “our best promotional campaign,” says Anne-Laure Tuncer. The Ryder Cup, a golf tournament pitting Europe against the United States, even made its French debut near Paris in 2018. The event “was a success, even though [the country] was not previously seen as a golfing destination by Americans.” This fall, the Rugby World Cup, hosted across nine French cities, will be an exciting warm-up before next year’s flagship events: the Olympic and Paralympic Games. While Paris will be the leading destination for both, several disciplines will be competing outside the capital, including sailing in Marseille, soccer in six regional stadiums, and surfing in Tahiti!

The year 2024 will also be the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings. “This will be a time of profound emotion and gratitude, but also a major moment for remembrance tourism, which brings almost six million visitors to Normandy every year, including many from the English-speaking world,” said the region’s president, Hervé Morin, in New York City last March. The commemorations will coincide with the Normandie Impressionniste art festival, held from March through September.

Art de vivre, gastronomy, sports, history, and culture are just a few ways to invite American tourists off the beaten path. Another lever is the appeal of “greener” tourism. At the end of the pandemic, Emmanuel Macron declared that he wanted to make France the leading “sustainable destination” by 2030. “That implies promoting train travel, renovating certain buildings, certifying tourist accommodation providers, and extending the tourist season beyond the summer,” says Anne-Laure Tuncer. Meanwhile, investments and innovation must continue if France is to rival other destinations such as Italy, Croatia, and Portugal. “France is sometimes seen as a sleeping beauty or an open-air museum,” says the Atout France U.S.A. director. “And yet it is one of the places doing the most to rejuvenate its tourist offering!”

Article published in the May 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.