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France admits it needs to be friendlier to visitors

By Barry Neild, CNN
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
Officials say France's tourism industry needs to work harder to safeguard billions of dollars in revenue.
Officials say France's tourism industry needs to work harder to safeguard billions of dollars in revenue.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • French ministers say their country could try harder to welcome visitors
  • Fleur Pellerin warns situation must improve or $16 billion annual tourism revenues could be hit
  • Plans unveiled to reform restrictive retail hours and drive to improve non-French languages

(CNN) -- It's a big nation that can take a long hard look at itself and reach the conclusion it might be a bit rude toward tourists.

France, which regularly tops lists of countries that are surly to travelers, appears to be waking up to the notion this might not actually be good for business.

While not exactly prompting a full-blown existential crisis, the admission does seem to have led to discussions on how to make its boulevards and brasseries more inviting.

"We must rediscover the meaning of hospitality," Innovation Minister Fleur Pellerin told a tourism conference last week. "Everyone recognizes we can do better on the welcome and quality of service."

This won't be news to anyone who's visited Paris in recent years and received Gallic shrugs of indifference from waiters or hoteliers.

Neither is it the first time that France has done some soul searching about its attitudes.

MORE: Eight ways Lyon outshines Paris

Targeted by pickpockets

Last year Parisian tourism and trade officials launched a manual offering advice to service industry employees on how to befriend the various nationalities that flock to the city.

Problems apparently persist -- not helped by a 2013 crime wave in which crowds of Chinese tourists were reportedly targeted by pickpockets.

A six-day strike by French air traffic controllers that's expected to create major delays for travelers this week is also unlikely to burnish the nation's image.

Pellerin said France mustn't "rest on its laurels" at a time when the country badly needs the annual $16 billion injection that tourism provides to its economy.

Her comments came as Laurent Fabius, France's foreign minister, said in an interview that he wants to push through new measures to attract visitors.

He told BFMTV that he was involved with discussions to ease France's restrictive Sunday trading laws to open up more shops in Paris.

Fabius said he hopes improved road and rail links between the capital and Charles de Gaulle Airport will also improve matters.

As might a drive to encourage more tourism industry workers to learn other languages.

MORE: Eiffel Tower celebrates 125 years

Shifting attitudes

Fabius said it's "essential" that people understand that any tourist "whether French or foreign -- is someone we should welcome."

Some, however, say that France is at least making progress.

"I think that, on the whole, French attitudes have shifted and that French people are more courteous with tourists than they used to be," French commentator and journalist Agnes Poirier told CNN.

"They are also more likely to be able to speak English and give indications.

"It is difficult for Parisians to simply ignore tourists. They know tourists spend a lot, and are a vital element of the country's prosperity, and should therefore be well treated."

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