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France

The volunteers changing France’s ‘moody’ image

© http://www.parisgreeters.fr/

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2013-09-20

France has a reputation for giving visitors a brusque and even sullen reception. But a group of volunteers called “Greeters” are out to prove the French are a friendly people who want to share all the delights their country has to offer.

Despite welcoming more tourists every year than any other country in the world, France has a reputation for sometimes giving visitors a brusque and less-than-friendly reception.

But one growing group of volunteers is determined to buck this negative image and prove that the French are a friendly and benevolent people who genuinely want to share all the delights their country has to offer.

The French volunteers are part of the “Global Greeter Network” (GGN), a movement that began in New York in 1992 and spread to France by 2007.

The GGN now counts 51 city destinations in 18 countries. Nearly half these destinations are in France, and Paris has more volunteer “Greeters” – 360 – than any city in the world.

Paris’s Greeters – who speak a variety of languages – meet visitors (in groups of one to six) after they have arranged to meet through the group’s website.

They show them what their own districts have to offer, from cafés and restaurants, to galleries, parks, local architecture and landmarks.

They won’t ask for money, or arrange visits to paying locations where they take a commission. All financial support for the network comes through donations and from sponsorship from local government and businesses.

Confounding stereotypes

FRANCE 24 met them as they held their international congress in Paris’s sumptuous Hotel de Ville (City Hall), hosted by the city authorities who are keen to tout – and sponsor – a service they believe confounds all negative stereotypes about the French.

GNN in Paris has 360 volunteers, who in 2012 organised 2,364 walking tours for 5,365 tourists.

To find a “Greeter” in France (or in any of the 18 countries represented), or to sign up to become a “Greeter” yourself, visit their website.

“As urban tourism grows there is inevitable friction,” Jean-Bernard Bros, who is head of tourism for the city, told FRANCE 24. “Greeters helps bridge a cultural divide between locals and visitors. The initiative shows that Parisians, who can often seem too busy to bother, are genuinely interested in showing outsiders what the city is really like.”

Claude d’Aura, who heads GGN’s branch – “Parisien d’un Jour, Parisien Toujours” (Parisian for a Day, Parisian Forever) – in the French capital, added: “Paris has an undeserved reputation, and our goal is to change the way Parisians and the French are perceived.

“We are proving every day that this reputation is totally unfounded.”

Easing tension

Diana Hounslow, a British expatriate who is head of tourism for the Pas-de-Calais region in northern France, a part of the country she said “gets a bad press” even in the French media, said that locals there had taken up “Greeting” with enormous enthusiasm.

“We went out and asked people what they wanted from tourism, and they said they wanted to actually meet visitors, talk to them and get to know them,” she said.

“Tourism, even if it brings financial benefits, can often be seen as invasive, especially in big towns like Paris or in seaside resorts, when visitors flood in with little regard for people who actually live there. It causes tension. Local volunteers help ease that tension and create understanding.”

France ‘a model’

Among the international delegates at the Paris GNN conference was Katie Law, who heads the Greeters in Chicago.

The French enthusiasm for “Greeting”, she said, was “a model for all of us to follow; all the country’s major cities have embraced the concept and carry it out with magnificent enthusiasm”.

“It’s ironic that France, which does have a reputation for sullenness towards visitors, should be the one country that has taken this concept of welcoming people further than anywhere else,” she said.

Standing next to her, admiring the view over central Paris despite the bucketing rain, was Gail More, 59, one of the founders of the Greeter movement in New York.

“Why has it been so successful in France?” she asked. “Visitors, like me, are genuinely interested in French culture, meeting people who can show me the ‘micro’ local experience. It works so well here because French Greeters have a genuine pride in their country, and because they get so much out of showing it off to visitors.”

Date created : 2013-09-10

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