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Hesitations and reconfigurations in the management of visitor flows in outstanding natural areas

Vincent Vles
Traduction de Université Bretagne Occidentale
Cet article est une traduction de :
Hésitations et recompositions dans la gestion des flux de fréquentation dans les sites naturels exceptionnels [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Dudas y nuevos planteamientos en la gestión de los flujos de visitantes a los espacios naturales singulares [es]


For natural areas considered as outstanding, issues related to the governance and the ways of managing visitor flows, as well as the improvement of the quality and the experience of the visit, are expressed in terms of sustainable mobility, access to data concerning the visit, collaborative consumption, participation and dialogue between local inhabitants, shopkeepers, visitors and site managers. This paper reports the main results of research evaluating the way in which seven outstanding natural sites in France approach this question. It draws from the experiments conducted a series of lessons and questions that were debated in January 2017 at the French National Assembly with members of the Grands Sites de France Network. It contributes to knowledge of the user experience, and how the latter is taken into account by the regions responsible for the management of these areas. The growing importance of immaterial factors in regulating flows of visits to these areas combined with the radical paradigm shift that now considers natural common resources as being both material and immaterial help, by their development, to determine the tourism regulation of these exceptional sites. The analysis of perceptions and representations contributes to the knowledge of the methods of optimizing nature and establishes concerted intervention with visitors as a major factor in local development.

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1The search for a better link between the management of visitor flows, their repercussions, and the necessary opening of areas to the public has become both a national and an international issue. And yet, the majority of recent research carried out in France deals with the question of the impact of numbers of visitors on the regions responsible for these sites, especially in terms of development; very little research actually questions the management of tourism development and of numbers of visitors. The scientific literature in France – especially in those fields studying tourism phenomena – generally does not address the issue of flow management methods, their effectiveness and their impact on the environment for visitors, local inhabitants, and economic or regional stakeholders. The questions raised in 1997 by Florence Deprest in her “Survey on mass tourism, ecology with respect to the region” found few extensions.

2The relationship between tourism and the protection of major natural areas has always been ambivalent, to say the least. It should not be forgotten that tourism has often been – and sometimes still is – at the origin of the protection and transformation of these regions, and that the first tourism associations, both federal (Touring Club de France, the French Alpine Club) and local (tourist offices, professional groups, etc.), played a major role in the institutionalization of rules guaranteeing the protection of remarkable natural areas and major destinations (Gauchon, 2002; Larrère C. and R., Lizet and Berlan-Barqué, 2009). Tourism is rapidly emerging as a space-consuming and disruptive activity for natural ecosystems. The democratization and massification of leisure activities observed during the thirty-year period from 1945 to 1975 were accompanied by hospitality operations that often proved destructive for the environments concerned. Some were even developed in disregard of prior classifications. Numerous examples exist of departmental commissions for sites that accepted the urbanization of classified natural areas in exchange for a “landscape integration” of the facilities or the adoption of measures – often vain – accompanying this urbanization (Milian, 2007). In our urban and mobile societies, the advent of leisure activities has led to an increase in the number of visitors to these exceptional sites that we are encouraged to see, visit and explore – in much the same way as the Grand Tour undertaken by young English aristocrats in the nineteenth century (Boyer, 1999).

3Much progress has been made in the management of outstanding natural areas. The degradation of fragile natural environments caused by poorly or incorrectly controlled tourism development has been amply reported in the scientific and technical literature (Barabé, 1988; Deprest, 1997; Mounet, Nicollet and Rocheblave, 2000; Lequin, 2001; Atout France, 2013). The issue of the hostility on the part of many elected representatives towards a protection policy deemed confiscatory and contrary to local economic interests (Clarimont, 2013) has largely been settled. Labelling policies have promoted the tourism dimension as a determining criterion for the management of vulnerable sites. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged that visitors generate significant economic benefits for the region concerned (Vourc’h, 1999; Vourc’h and Natali, 2000). Despite all this, however, methods to control the accessibility to sites and their impacts in social, political and environmental terms are poorly understood in France.

Restrictions d’accès sur les pistes du Canigó.

Restrictions d’accès sur les pistes du Canigó.

Vlès, juillet 2016

4And yet, on a global scale since the 1980s, more than 2,000 papers have been published on this issue (Stankey et al., 1990). Historically, the first measures to limit the impacts related to load capacity were initiated by US administrations managing natural areas at a time when they were faced with a massive increase in numbers of visitors (doubling from 1941 to 1960 in the National Parks, and then again between 1960 and 1975). Various methods were thus established and followed in classified natural areas, especially in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. These included the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) method, the Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) method (Nilsen and Tayler, 1997), the Visitor Impact Management (VIM) method, which provided a framework for intervention to researchers working for the opening of natural parks (US National Parks and Conservation Association), and the Tourism Optimization Management Model (TOMM; Manadis, 1997), developed in the 1990s in Sydney (Newsome, 2001: 161).

1 – Research and methodology

  • 1 Outstanding sites and balanced development of regions, ongoing research and experimentation, Minist (...)

5In order to situate the French experience in this area of investigation, research into the implementation of the concept of load capacity in the management of certain natural heritage sites was proposed and retained within the framework of a research programme under the Urban Planning, Construction and Architecture Plan (Plan Urbanisme Construction Architecture, PUCA).1 Based on international scientific best practices, the hypotheses tested in France concerned the five points agreed upon by the scientific community following international publications (Alldredge, 1972; Butler, 1980; Canestrelli and Costa, 1991; Cocossis, Mesca et al., 2001):

    • 2 “The load capacity of ecosystems can be defined as the threshold beyond which an ecological good or (...)

    Different leisure or tourism experiences generate different load capacities.2 There is therefore no mechanical calculation of the state of saturation of places that could be applied simply by copying it from one place to another.

  1. The impacts identified on biological and physical resources are not sufficient to calculate the maximum or optimal load capacity of major natural areas. Any use of a region by visitors produces certain environmental changes. Much of the biophysical impact observed at the sites actually occurs at very low levels of use. Consequently, if a site manager wants to fully minimize this impact, the exclusion of all forms of visit is the only solution. Such action is, however, often either impossible or undesirable.

  2. There is no linear or proportional relationship of cause and effect between a large amount of use and the impact on the site concerned. Activity types are generally a better indicator of impact than the intensity of use or the number of users. For example, low intensity equestrian activities will have more impact on the condition of trails than a very high use of these same trails by hikers. The season can also have a significantly greater impact than the actual number of users. Hiking in wet weather, in winter or under stormy conditions, for example, is potentially more destructive for these trails than during the dry season.

  3. “Load capacity” is a concept produced by value judgements. It is not the pure mechanical product of a ratio between numbers of visitors and natural resources. Observation and research are necessary but not sufficient to evaluate it. This rules out the calculation of load capacity based on scientific expertise alone, moving it into the political arena and requiring the participation of all of the stakeholders.

  4. The knowledge of load capacity alone does not make it possible to determine what must be done to maintain balance between the protection of the sites and natural areas and the uses that visitors make of them with a view to maximizing the benefits.

6Based on these published results, the first objective of the research programme3 was to examine the way in which some outstanding natural areas in France have managed flows of visitors in various contexts and over time.

  • 4 The term “spirit of the place” refers to the genius loci that the Greeks and Romans attributed to e (...)

7The second objective aimed to analyse, by means of surveys, the way in which local inhabitants on the one hand and visitors on the other experienced an outstanding site, as well as their impression of the symbolic transformations and uses related to its labelling. This objective also sought to confront the perceptions of the local inhabitants with those of the visitors. How are flow control measures experienced by the visitors and the inhabitants of these major sites? What is the view of the visitors (tourists and inhabitants alike) on these flow management measures supposed to improve the quality of the visit while preserving the “spirit of the place”?4 How do these measures affect their experience of the site? The research thus compared the perceptions of local inhabitants with those of visitors to examine the value chains that affect the regional management of these sites.

8A third objective, finally, aimed to draw up a “logbook of experiences” in the form of an assessment of “good practices” or “remarkable experiences”. These experiences mainly revealed the current transformation (by the broadening of their spatial base) of the cooperation of regions seeking to optimize the management of visitors in an outstanding natural area in France.

  • 5 See updated map at

9Regarding the methodology, the research focused on a sample of seven very well-known sites subjected to strong pressures in terms of numbers of visitors: the Pointe du Raz promontory in Cap Sizun, the Dune of Pilat, the Gavarnie-Mont-Perdu UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Montagne Sainte-Victoire mountain ridge, the Bouillouses-Lannoux-Camporells classified sites, the Canigou Mountain, and the Néouvielle National Nature Reserve.5 Four of these sites have been the subject of an Opération Grand Site, a national rehabilitation programme designed to restore the natural character of a site that has been severely degraded by the influx of visitors (Duval and Gauchon, 2007): Pointe du Raz, Montagne Sainte-Victoire, Gavarnie and Canigou. Another, the Dune of Pilat, is benefitting from a current Opération Grand Site. At the end of this process, three sites were labelled “Grand Site de France” (label reserved for a site “classified and very well-known with large numbers of tourists”): the Pointe du Raz (2004), Montagne Sainte-Victoire (2004) and Canigou (2012). The Dune of Pilat is a candidate for an upcoming label. Other sites of the sample are considering obtaining this label over the more or less long term (Gavarnie, the Néouvielle National Nature Reserve, the Bouillouses lakes).

10The research studied 410 scientific, technical and operational documents. It conducted 86 semi-structured interviews with management actors (elected officials and technicians), the in-situ visit of all of the hospitality regulation mechanisms and the modalities of their governance, qualitative photo-questionnaire surveys of 300 visitors at three sites to determine the impact of restricted access on their visit experience, as well as qualitative surveys of local shopkeepers. The research team questioned the actors’ approach to optimal numbers of visitors, investigated how these indicators were chosen, how the monitoring programme was set up, and how the acceptability and monitoring of these measures were defined and discussed. Finally, the team investigated whether or not a “model” for the management of flows and their repercussions had been considered and implemented, and which methods of monitoring and evaluating the programme had been chosen.

2 – A wide variety of ways to regulate tourist numbers

11None of the sites in the sample had set up or referred to a flow management model, whether already available or specifically designed. However, everywhere the constant growth in tourism in the outstanding natural areas (with the exception of Gavarnie) raises the problem of the numbers of visitors, sometimes excessive. The question has been the subject of various approaches, often by trial and error, and without recourse to a global method. All of the surveyed site managers were aware that opening to the public and tourism put pressure on the natural environment that they often struggle to manage, and that these flows are not without consequences on resources, social structures, cultural models, economic activities, and even land use or certain practices on the part of the local communities. These managers sometimes even observe a decrease in the quality of the tourism offer with greater flows. The governance structures of the sites are organized around two notions used to characterize the impacts: saturation, the impossibility for the environment, at a given moment, to accommodate additional visitors; and denaturing, the destruction of the environment, the at least partial loss of what can be referred to as the original character of the site that constitutes its attraction. The regions are thus informed of the stakes involved in combining environmental protection and regional development.

Surfréquentation à La Pointe du Raz

Surfréquentation à La Pointe du Raz

Vlès, juin 2016

12These concepts have not, however, been used by the site managers. Measurement or observation systems that evaluate the capacity limits, maximum loads and tolerance thresholds that the local planning process could draw on to combine the long-term benefits of visitors to the region with the desire for environmental preservation and the economic development this is supposed to trigger have only rarely been implemented. The establishment of optimal load capacities refers to the numbers of visitors that the socio-economic and natural system can sustainably support without irremediable change, the delimitation between an optimum to be reached and a maximum that must not be exceeded. This is done everywhere by trial and error, by finding solutions to other questions: safety of people and property, risks, access possibilities, and preservation of ecological niches for endangered species. Some of the sites manage to empirically evaluate (by closing off access because of environmental damage, for example) an hourly or daily number of visitors that must under no circumstances be reached. This load capacity threshold corresponds to a breaking point, a threshold beyond which the decline in the quality of the environment and the visits is often irreversible. These sites include Sainte-Victoire (parts of the trails), the Canigou (entire trails), and Gavarnie at Héas (restructuring of the car parks). Others have great difficulty in obtaining acceptance of the principle by all of the actors in the regions concerned, even when it has sometimes been temporarily implemented for access to certain sites (Pointe du Raz, Dune of Pilat).

  • 6

13The establishment of optimal numbers per access or visit site, however, constitutes part of the future approach and aims to define a “limit of elasticity” between the maximum and the optimal thresholds, the one that ensures the best economic benefits. The exercise is complex because, to undertake this approach, site managers must seek to understand multiple variables. These include: the physical capacity of the different sites at different times of the year and under different atmospheric, edaphic and ecosystem conditions; the ability of these environments to support different volumes of visitors without deformation and without any negative impact on the environment and the population; and the acceptance of restrictions by the local inhabitants, visitors and economic actors. In other ongoing research in Porquerolles in the Port-Cros National Park, a small island that in high season exposes a sensitive natural environment to extreme and destructive numbers of tourists, these variables are not any better managed, despite the efforts undertaken (Le Berre et al., 2013).6

14The regulatory approach requires a long process of discussion – and therefore negotiation – around the criteria and indicators to be defined in very specific points, accompanied by the determination of distinct thresholds for each measurement point, the different environments and the different leisure or discovery experiences generating different load capacities. Nowhere are the impacts identified on the biological or natural environments sufficient to calculate load capacities by simple mathematical equation. The surveys in the seven sites have shown that a reflection in terms of social and political acceptability of these impacts is necessary. The types of activity, the intensity of use or the number of users are, however, three variables that are difficult to constantly evaluate and therefore to take into account in management indicators for tourist numbers. Above all, the interviews with the site managers showed that the load capacity (sometimes locally called “hospitality capacity” or “welcome capacity”) turned out to be a concept based on value judgements. The discourse by the managers and the inhabitants shows that it is not only a mechanical product resulting from a relationship between numbers of visitors and natural resources; while observation by eco-controllers and research are necessary to evaluate it, the quantified data – when they exist – are insufficient. The site managers believe that the approach in terms of load capacity “is not adapted to the French context”. The risk (notably that related to fire) gives these postures a very variable importance. This importance is even diametrically opposed between Gavarnie and Sainte-Victoire, which probably mark both ends of the scale (concept quite well integrated at Sainte-Victoire and ignored at Gavarnie).

Restriction d’accès temporaire et réglementée dans la Montagne Sainte-Victoire, en fonction des évolutions du milieu.

Restriction d’accès temporaire et réglementée dans la Montagne Sainte-Victoire, en fonction des évolutions du milieu.

Vlès, mai 2015

15The management of access to outstanding natural areas is thus not content with just scientific expertise alone. It is continually debated in the political arena to require the participation of the stakeholders, in particular the local authorities, rarely the population, and even more rarely visitors. Finally, the interviews with the site managers showed that, for many of them, changing the access and conditions of visiting the site was sometimes difficult to envisage. It can be deduced that the calculation, interpretation and application of a maximum load capacity for a site is primarily based on a desire for regulation on the part of the local actors – provided that they have been informed of what could happen if they do not make choices (prospective hypotheses). This was rare in the cases studied (the Dune of Pilat is an example of the slow pace of taking into account the risks associated with poorly controlled numbers of visitors). It has been found that value judgements concerning the acceptable level of change to be introduced into practices reflect both positions of political philosophy (the limiting of access being an unpopular measure) and emotional positions, based as much on experience as on the economy. This position of “avoidance” or denial of the problem to be resolved underlines the importance of raising awareness, providing information and training site managers in these issues.

16Finally, the research resulting from interviews with the decision-makers reveals that no outstanding natural area has as yet integrated new information and communication technologies in its approach to flow management. This management is done outside the current digital revolution, even though the methods allowing for crosschecking data pertaining to numbers of visitors (“flow vision”, tracking, guidance, information and reception via smartphones, etc.) between the tourism, environmental protection and landscape development sectors are now known. This is one of the major issues of flow management as the needs with respect to public action are already changing along with uses and their perception. Many opportunities exist to innovate and invent new business models and enable funding for better flow management. The difficulties in increasing economic benefits in these areas thanks to the digital revolution are certainly numerous (risks of very complex technical systems, the stranglehold of some private operators, a greater split between the areas that have the means to monitor these developments and those that do not). We can note considerable delays in the implementation of digital strategies in the outstanding natural areas studied, contrary to the case in smart cities. Indeed, the latter work to make their mobility smart via big data (Berlin, Barcelona, Paris, London, and even the Songdo International Business District) that increasingly collect and process data on numbers of visitors in a continuous, automated and shared way. This is done via the development of e-roaming (orientation tables with touch screens, etc.), access to a range of services for the area at a flat rate, exploitation of data flows to develop offerings and complete them at different regional levels, smart management and data harmonization, and the emergence of new prescribers in the form of international tourism and accommodation organization and reservation platforms.

17These conclusions prove that the management of very well-known classified natural areas is still confronted with the difficult link between protection, guided by the will to preserve this “spirit of the place”, in accordance with the law of 2 May 1930, and development, an often essential element for the local tourism economy. The implementation of protective measures and quotas regarding numbers of visitors is part of the constrained context characterized by local pressures to urbanize or equip the site, protection measures challenged by certain actors, the vulnerability of sites confronted with natural hazards (marine erosion, forest fires, erosion due to torrential rains, avalanches, floods, etc.), as well as the transformation of land use patterns due to agricultural decline resulting in the spontaneous growth of vegetation and modification of the “spirit of the place”. Sites are therefore places subject to intervention logics with differentiated objectives, places that are continually changing under the effect of natural and anthropogenic factors.

18But when flow regulation actions are carried out, how are they perceived? How do the users of these sites (visitors, local inhabitants, and even shopkeepers) position themselves with respect to these developments? Are they aware of the transformations experienced in these sites? What is their opinion of these transformations? More generally, what is their conception of what is desirable or, on the contrary, undesirable in these outstanding areas? The second objective of this research was to access knowledge – even partial – of perceptions, representations and uses of the natural area.

3 – A globally satisfactory visitor experience, but...

  • 7 The term “visitor” is used here because it seemed more appropriate than that of “tourist” insofar a (...)
  • 8 The various surveys of different categories of the public will be the subject of separate publicati (...)

19To understand how local inhabitants and visitors7 “experience” the symbolic transformations and uses related to the labelling of outstanding natural areas, a photo-questionnaire survey was conducted in 2015 and 2016 with visitors to three of the seven areas selected for the study: one on the coast (Dune of Pilat) and two mountain sites (Gavarnie and Montagne Sainte-Victoire). In addition, a survey of shopkeepers from three sites with a commercial offer in the immediate vicinity of the protected natural area (Dune of Pilat, Gavarnie and Pointe du Raz) was conducted between June and July 2016. These surveys were therefore deliberately different from the periodic surveys of tourist numbers in protected natural areas, which mainly aim to better understand the profile of the visitors (gender, age, socio-professional category, visit habits and modes, arrival time, time spent on site), the means of access to the site and the reasons for the visit (activities undertaken).8

Une des grilles utilisées pour apprécier l’expérience des visiteurs, ici à Sainte-Victoire.

Une des grilles utilisées pour apprécier l’expérience des visiteurs, ici à Sainte-Victoire.

Vlès & Clarimont, mai 2015

Une des grilles utilisées pour apprécier l’expérience des visiteurs, ici à Sainte-Victoire.

Une des grilles utilisées pour apprécier l’expérience des visiteurs, ici à Sainte-Victoire.

Vlès & Clarimont, mai 2015].

Une des grilles utilisées pour apprécier l’expérience des visiteurs, ici à Sainte-Victoire.

Une des grilles utilisées pour apprécier l’expérience des visiteurs, ici à Sainte-Victoire.

Vlès & Clarimont, mai 2015].

Une des grilles utilisées pour apprécier l’expérience des visiteurs, ici à Sainte-Victoire.

Une des grilles utilisées pour apprécier l’expérience des visiteurs, ici à Sainte-Victoire.

Vlès & Clarimont, mai 2015].

20Conducted with nearly 300 visitors to the Dune of Pilat, Gavarnie and Sainte-Victoire in 2015 and 2016, their first aim was to take into account the three components of the tourist area: the actual area (during the visit), the imagined area (before the visit), and the ideal area (as the visitor thought it should be). These surveys also purposed to understand the perceptions, representations and uses of the natural area in order to inform public action, to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the completed or planned developments, and to determine what was considered desirable or, on the contrary, undesirable, useless or unsuitable. A questionnaire survey method was chosen in order to question a fairly large number of visitors and, above all, to be able to conduct statistical processing of the results facilitating their comparative perspective (three sites). Based on previous work on tourist perceptions of public areas in seaside and mountain resorts (Hatt, Vlès, Clarimont et al., 2011) from an experiment by a Parisian architectural firm on the famous “Walls of Peaches” in Montreuil (Séchet et al., 1998), photography was chosen as a tool revealing visitor experiences and reflecting their sensitive dimensions. The associated questionnaire was structured around three main themes: 1) the visit and conditions of visit to the site (mode of access, place of parking, number and frequency of visits, reasons for the visit); 2) the perception of the site (knowledge of the “Grand Site” label, opinion on the land ownership of the site, site development, level of satisfaction with the visit, sensitivity to landscapes based on photos); and 3) point of view on the preservation of the site and the acceptability of measures to control numbers of visitors. The processing of the data made it possible to appreciate the meaning given by the visitor to his/her experience of an outstanding natural area and to determine his/her degree of satisfaction and perception of the places.

  • 9 The photographs, survey forms and full results are presented and commented in the online report: ht (...)

21During the examination of the photographs proposed,9 the visitors confronted the views of the “eternal site” and those they considered were not representative because they portrayed factors of interference, things disturbing the notions they had of these places. This separation and the marked preference for photographs of “great iconic landscapes” are indicative of the visitors’ quest for the picturesque and quintessential landscape, the one they came to admire and that matches their ideal image of the site.

22With their visit of “natural monuments”, visitors express a desire for “wild”, “virgin” nature that excludes photographs depicting developed spaces or indeed any spaces showing traces of the presence of man. However, this request for nature is not without ambiguity since the investigation revealed that it was accompanied, in all of the sites, by a need for access, safety, maintenance and cleanliness... A need therefore for facilities, but discreet, light and especially integrated into the landscape. It is therefore finally a certain notion of nature that is reflected through the analysis of the survey results: an accessible, clean, and sparsely developed nature. As mostly urban or peri-urban dwellers, the people surveyed considered these outstanding natural areas as “natural public spaces”, by analogy with urban public spaces. Natural areas offering free and open access to all individuals, regardless of age, gender, social status, profession or religious affiliation, etc., and thus constituting spaces for the joint presence of differences.

23This part of the research allowed for identifying the structuring role, in the construction of resistance, of the acceptability of certain preservation measures, such as the establishment of organized walks, the opening up and limiting of the sites. Most of the visitors were delighted with their visit: 55% said they were extremely satisfied and 45% satisfied. For nearly 60% of the respondents, the site was better than they thought it would be. However, the factors identified as problematic were indeed related to the issue of flow management: excessive use in high season inducing access and parking difficulties, unpopular paid car parks considered as a toll to visit the site, access qualified as anarchic, and the ageing supply of services. This very high overall level of satisfaction also concerned the facilities present on the site (reception, parking, signs, etc.). To the question “What do you think of the development of the site?”, the respondents overwhelmingly replied that it seemed satisfactory (67.4%) or very satisfactory (19.8%). Only 9.7% of the respondents were dissatisfied and 0.8% (two people) very dissatisfied. The massive numbers of tourists, while perceived as manna from heaven for the shopkeepers interviewed, were judged negatively by many visitors and were among the least appreciated aspects of the visit. However, the principle of regulating the visits was rather badly received. Indeed, 59% of the respondents rejected the idea of limiting the hours and days of visits, and 66% the idea of limiting the number of visitors (imposing quotas). Some 64% disliked the idea of prohibiting access to certain parts of the site, and 69% rejected the idea of moving car parks further away even with a shuttle service. Finally, 79% were against the prohibiting of certain activities, while more than 90% shunned the idea of setting up a toll or authorizing only guided tours. The visitors were more attentive to the transformations of the developed area, in particular to the improvement of site access conditions (car parks, paths, stairs, signs), than to the transformations of repair attributable to “natural” phenomena (revegetation, melting of névés, marine erosion, dune mobility, etc.).

24The survey of the inhabitants highlighted the structuring role, in the construction of strong local resistance, of the acceptability of preservation measures such as the establishment of organized walks, the opening up and limiting of the sites, considering that they would be the first to be penalized by such measures. The shopkeepers had the impression that their interests were not taken into account by the site managers. They considered themselves as not only economic actors but also ambassadors of the natural site, highlighting their role in the welcoming of and provision of information to visitors as well as their contribution to the social development of the site. As such, they lamented the fact that their voices were not sufficiently heard by the managing bodies.

25It is therefore elsewhere, in other forms of governance, that it is appropriate to seek acceptable solutions for the local populations in order to limit certain flows in precisely defined and delimited locations. Tourism strategies, the networking of actors, and the hospitality policies integrated within the framework of a regional project show the important role of a new “ecosystem of actors” that needs to be developed. Indeed, local inhabitants can and want to get involved in tourism in their region, while start-ups could invent new services to respond to needs that are currently unmet. In this case, tourists and inhabitants alike would become stakeholders in this “ecosystem” of the visit and convey key images and messages that would encourage actors to build destination-wide strategies beyond a strategy for the natural area alone. These logics tend to accelerate the reconfiguration of tourism strategies for outstanding natural areas – organized until very recently along local institutional perimeters only – around a wider, more diversified offer integrating a porosity with neighbouring regions.

Ecocompteur différentiel 4 flux (piétons, vélos, chevaux, véhicules) connecté par GSM dans le Grand site du Canigó.

Ecocompteur différentiel 4 flux (piétons, vélos, chevaux, véhicules) connecté par GSM dans le Grand site du Canigó.

Vlès, juillet 2016

Conclusion: The management of excessive numbers of visitors in outstanding natural areas requires tailor-made solutions

  • 10 A typical day is every day of the year when the site will be at full capacity at some point during (...)
  • 11 R. B. Alldredge (1972) clearly demonstrated that the perception of the quality of the recreational (...)

26In the majority of cases, the teams of site managers have come to appreciate the access capacity limits for the sites in a very pragmatic way, firstly through local developments followed by the implementation of increasingly extensive governance. The experience of peaks in numbers of visitors that are difficult to manage has led site managers to determine the maximum permissible number of visits for a typical day.10 The facilities have been calibrated on typical day numbers in order to accommodate only the instant capacity during the peak time of the visit. When excessive numbers of visitors are present, the site managers generally admit that there will be dissatisfaction on the part of the users, but the teams and local populations know that, in return, these “horrible” days also play a dissuasive role. They agree that the typical day’s figure is exceeded during peaks in numbers of visitors, most often during the August holiday period. While all parties assume that the increase in the number of users leads to a reduction in the quality of service received by each of these users, the need to assess the relationship between user satisfaction and visitor numbers has not been implemented in any site of the sample.11 In all cases, it has been by trial and error that the sites have carried out, for each “saturated point” of the visit, a synthesis between several dimensions. Firstly, the ecological dimension concerning the maximum number of visitors that the destination can accommodate below the stress conditions for the natural environment and monuments (Newsome et al., 2001). Secondly, the economic dimension of the maximum number of visitors that can be accommodated while guaranteeing a constant quality of their experience (Canestrelli and Costa, 1991) without jeopardizing the tourism product, its cost and its profitability. And finally, a dimension less often taken into account, that of the comfortable nature of and positive experience generated by the discovery (image and reputation), a dimension of representation that is nevertheless extremely important in determining a positive experience on the part of the visitor (and thus a good reputation and positive tourism impacts).

27It is therefore through a series of successive compromises that the sites regulate flows of visitors. They do not seek to know the overall load capacity of the site, which does not have an absolute value for them, but rather agree on a series of values that are a function of the management objectives for the space in question. The “acceptability” of visitor pressure remains a somewhat relative notion for the managing bodies, both over time and from a sociological point of view since it refers to a choice made within the framework of a system of principles and values. The successes and failures described (see note 3) show in all cases the importance of bringing local stakeholders together around a goal of managing outstanding natural areas and resolving conflicts in order to succeed. Without local political ownership, visitor flow regulation systems do not suffice to create a dynamic of constitution of the management of numbers of visitors for the areas concerned.

28This is why the remarkable experiences highlighted show the importance, as a governance tool, of inter-regional cooperation and the reconfiguration of flow management strategies around extended destinations, rather than a focus on the sites themselves. The innovations undertaken (notably in the Canigou, Sainte-Victoire and Bouillouses sites) broaden collective thinking to an area in which data management (tourism, region and big data) is shared: common information and reservation platforms, regional WiFi, digital visitor applications, smart management of real-time data sharing on social networks, etc. The initial flow management approach, which consists in defining with inter-regional actors specific indicators to adapt the response status of the environments to numbers of visitors, also extends to a joint management of flows at the wider scale of the destination. The challenge is to participate in this regional reconfiguration with the help of shared digital data that, once organized, make it possible to process and analyse attractiveness management data at an affordable cost.

29The research, an operational extension of which is underway in the Port-Cros National Park, has made it possible to compare the methods implemented over the last twenty years in the regulation of flows and its governance, in order to achieve the optimal management of visits. Its results suggest that users and citizens should be more involved in decision-making and that the management of visits to outstanding natural areas should be shared. Indeed, it is a case of managing a “common regional resource” as, for the vast majority of the actors surveyed, these sites belong to the common heritage of the nation and are perceived by visitors as immutable places, beyond the ravages of time or those caused by man.

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Atout France, 2013, Stations touristiques et espaces naturels, Paris : Atout France / DATAR / ministère de l’Écologie, du Développement durable et de l’Énergie, 114.

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1 Outstanding sites and balanced development of regions, ongoing research and experimentation, Ministry of Ecological and Solidarity Transition, Ministry of Regional Cohesion, PUCA, published on 19 January 2015, available online:

2 “The load capacity of ecosystems can be defined as the threshold beyond which an ecological good or service begins to be degraded and can no longer contribute to the well-being of the populations. Beyond this threshold, the deterioration caused to the ecosystems will prevent certain groups of populations and future generations from meeting their needs” (Bergeron-Verville, 2013).

3 The final research report (534 pages), copyrighted, is available online at

4 The term “spirit of the place” refers to the genius loci that the Greeks and Romans attributed to each particular place, and that was both the guardian and the expression of that place. It is a cultural construct, resulting from perceptions and representations around the various material and immaterial factors that contribute to the identity of a site: sublime or picturesque, grandiose or intimate, captivating or soothing, each outstanding site leaves a unique impression in the minds of its visitors. Its heritage value is based on literary, artistic, economic, religious, legendary and regional social references. Excessive numbers of tourists threaten its identity and its soul, as well as its physical degradation and the living conditions of its inhabitants.

5 See updated map at


7 The term “visitor” is used here because it seemed more appropriate than that of “tourist” insofar as it covers two modes of discovery of the site: a proximity discovery in the context of a day trip, the main case for some sites (Sainte-Victoire and the Dune of Pilat in particular), and a tourist discovery as part of a holiday in the surrounding area. This term also has the advantage of having a less negative connotation than that of “tourist”, often used in a pejorative sense.

8 The various surveys of different categories of the public will be the subject of separate publications because their results are extremely long, their interpretation complex, and each relates to a specific problem or issue. Here we will only give the main results related to the question presented.

9 The photographs, survey forms and full results are presented and commented in the online report:

10 A typical day is every day of the year when the site will be at full capacity at some point during opening hours. This calculation does not include days when the site receives excessive numbers of visitors, i.e., two to ten days per year during which the management team accepts that the site will be oversaturated. Temporary arrangements are made for these days, and it would be absurd to design tourist hospitality measures on the basis of these peaks in numbers. On average, it is assumed that each of these typical days represents approximately 1 to 2% of the annual number of visitors to the site, and they occur no more than twenty times a year.

11 R. B. Alldredge (1972) clearly demonstrated that the perception of the quality of the recreational experience was “inversely correlated to the number of people present”. This decrease in perceived quality is not linear, however, which demonstrates the complexity of the variables to be taken into account. Most of these notions remain very subjective and depend on the types of clientele and the knowledge of the place. Models or standards therefore cannot and must not be established. There is no identical effect between a place where tourists know in advance that they will not be alone (theme parks, beaches in August, etc.), and a place they visit precisely to be alone (visitors seeking serenity, calm and silence; birdwatchers; lovers of mountain wildernesses).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Restrictions d’accès sur les pistes du Canigó.
Crédits Vlès, juillet 2016
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,0M
Titre Surfréquentation à La Pointe du Raz
Crédits Vlès, juin 2016
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,3M
Titre Restriction d’accès temporaire et réglementée dans la Montagne Sainte-Victoire, en fonction des évolutions du milieu.
Crédits Vlès, mai 2015
Fichier image/jpeg, 448k
Titre Une des grilles utilisées pour apprécier l’expérience des visiteurs, ici à Sainte-Victoire.
Crédits Vlès & Clarimont, mai 2015
Fichier image/jpeg, 160k
Titre Une des grilles utilisées pour apprécier l’expérience des visiteurs, ici à Sainte-Victoire.
Crédits Vlès & Clarimont, mai 2015].
Fichier image/jpeg, 300k
Titre Une des grilles utilisées pour apprécier l’expérience des visiteurs, ici à Sainte-Victoire.
Crédits Vlès & Clarimont, mai 2015].
Fichier image/jpeg, 356k
Titre Une des grilles utilisées pour apprécier l’expérience des visiteurs, ici à Sainte-Victoire.
Crédits Vlès & Clarimont, mai 2015].
Fichier image/jpeg, 256k
Titre Ecocompteur différentiel 4 flux (piétons, vélos, chevaux, véhicules) connecté par GSM dans le Grand site du Canigó.
Crédits Vlès, juillet 2016
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,4M
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Référence électronique

Vincent Vles, « Hesitations and reconfigurations in the management of visitor flows in outstanding natural areas », Via [En ligne], 11-12 | 2017, mis en ligne le 14 mai 2018, consulté le 24 mai 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/viatourism.1821

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Vincent Vles

Currently Professor of planning and urban development at the Higher Institute of Tourism, Hospitality Management and Food Studies (ISTHIA, University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès), Vincent Vlès was successively Director of the Institute of Planning, Tourism and Urban Development of Bordeaux Montaigne University and the Institute of Research on Development of the University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour. A specialist in tourist resorts, Vincent Vlès leads research into the changes and ecological transition in mountain and coastal tourist destinations in Europe within the CERTOP (CNRS / University of Toulouse Joint Research Centre) and runs the Scientific Council for the Catalan Pyrenees Regional Natural Park. Since 1985, he has authored some 200 publications on tourism development and urban planning.

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Université Bretagne Occidentale

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