Marseille Magic: Report from Rendez-vous en France 2019

Marseille, France
Marseille, France // Photo by ManuKro/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Sun and sea makes a hard-to-beat combination. Throw in 26 centuries of history, Mediterranean cuisine, scenic coastal calanques and a vibrant cultural scene, and you’ve got a destination champion. Marseille is well aware of its charms—indeed, the historic Marseille-Paris rivalry is ages old—and the 14th edition of Rendez-vous en France was a chance to show them off to the world. Held on March 19 and 20 at the Palais Phocéen exhibition center, French tourism’s largest B2B trade show convened 788 French exhibitors and more than 915 tour operators from 73 different countries. No stranger to the tourism spotlight, Provence was proud to bask in the gaze of the adoring public.

There were 57 American tour operators in attendance, including Avanti, Classic Vacations, Duvine Cycling and Adventures, Eurobound, and Delta Vacations. Many took part in pre-show familiarization trips to discover the tourist riches of France, particularly Provence. On the agenda: Rosé-soaked lunches, artisanal perfume making, pétanque games, tête-à-têtes with Picasso… need we say more?

According to Atout France, the tourism development agency, tourism is the No. 1 economic sector in France, generating the most employment, along with 167.8 billion euros (approximately $190.4 billion), representing 7.1 percent of GDP. With an estimated 90 million international arrivals in 2018, a record number, France continues to reign supreme as the world’s No. 1 tourist destination.

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Despite a chilly mistral wind blowing fiercely from the north, the opening soirée was a celebratory occasion. France has once again cemented its position as the planet’s tourism leader, even with the “gilets jaunes” political protests in Paris. The MUCEM, architect Rudy Ricciotti’s landmark museum on the Old Port, was the stunning setting for the fete, its lace-like metallic facade illuminated in blue light.

Looking ahead, the 15th addition of Rendez-vous en France will be held in Nantes on March 24 and 25, 2020.

A Destination in the Spotlight

The salon Rendez-vous en France rotates destinations around the Hexagon, returning to Paris every three years, in order to showcase diverse French regions. It’s an unparalleled opportunity for the host destination to sell itself. Provence is already a powerful brand around the world, but the region doesn’t rest on its laurels. A new promotional campaign looks to distinguish Provence as more than just lavender fields.

The effect of Marseille’s role as European Capital of Culture 2013 cannot be overstated. Simply put: The port city transformed itself, shaking off its reputation as the edgy, even unsavory, place depicted in films like Taxi and The French Connection. “2013 was a big defining moment for Marseille,” explained tour guide Alexandra Blanc Véa, “with a definite before and after.” Large-scale investments, new museum openings, and cultural projects resulted in a major tourism boost. “I call it the Saint-Tropez effect: Now, we see the kinds of yachts here you’d expect to see in that harbor.” What’s more, Marseille has blossomed into a major cruise destination with 6,000 passengers arriving every day on cruises. And 2019 sees the launch of the first-ever culinary extravaganza called “A Gastronomic Year in Provence." MPG2019 will feature 1,000 events, including celebrity chef workshops.

The city’s revitalization continues with Euroméditerranée, an ambitious billion-euro project that’s been billed as the biggest urban renovation program ever seen in Europe. The derelict Joliette docks area has been replaced by a vibrant new district edged by a seafront promenade and anchored by skyscrapers designed by star architects Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel. A formerly abandoned area is now home to restaurants, hotels, a shopping mall, cinema, and the FRAC contemporary art museum by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.

Alexandre Sorrentino, Euroméditerranée’s director of international relations, equates this project to Barcelona’s regeneration. The oldest city in France, founded 26 centuries ago by Greek sailors, is reopening itself to the sea in an area that had been sealed off by a busy boulevard on the water’s edge.

What’s New in 2019?

Loire Valley

Photo by Musat/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images    

“One of the year’s most exciting events will be taking place in the Loire Valley with the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance,” explained Anne-Laure Tuncer, director of Atout France USA. “The region wants to show that the Renaissance is still going on today” with great creativity and artistic energy. 2019 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, the birth of Catherine de’ Medici in Florence, and the start of the construction on François I’s palatial Chambord Chateau. To mark this symbolic year, the Loire Valley region—known as the “Cradle of the Renaissance”— is putting on a show with a cultural program jam-packed with 500 different events, exhibitions and shows. Hotels like the luxurious new Relais de Chambord, a Small Luxury Hotel of the World property within a stone’s throw of the great chateau, are organizing special packages that include event tickets.

In conversation with Travel Agent, Tuncer also stressed the importance of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which will see commemorative events across the Normandy region. Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” will leave the U.S. for the first time when they are exhibited at Normandy's Caen Memorial from June 4 to October 27, 2019. France will host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in June. And the year will see a firm focus on contemporary art with the opening of the MOCO (contemporary art museum) in Montpellier, the highly anticipated Pinault Collection at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris, and Lille’s Eldorado event.

American tourism to France continues to be strong, and Tuncer explained that exciting new flight routes only facilitates access for visitors from the U.S. La Compagnie will launch a route between New York and Nice starting in May, while Air France will begin a Dallas-Paris route for the first time.

French Affairs will be held in Houston in October.

An Eldorado in the North

Lille

Photo by Richard Nahem

There was big buzz at Rendez-vous en France about a major cultural event in Lille. Like Marseille, Lille is a metropolis that witnessed massive revitalization after it was named European Capital of Cultural in 2004. This northern French city is situated at the crossroads of Europe (just an hour from Paris, 35 minutes from Brussels and 80 minutes from London). In a dedicated press conference, François Navarro, the city’s tourism director, described how Lille “lives and breathes culture.” It’s also a fun, party-loving place known for its big carnival parades and festivals.

Eldorado, which kicks off on April 27 with a giant parade, is a city-wide, year-long event that will showcase exhibitions, festivals, art installations, and concerts. Mexico will be the guest of honor at Eldorado. Other highlights include an exceptional retrospective dedicated to sculptor Alberto Giacometti, and a giant moon suspended in the train station commemorating the 50th anniversary of man’s first steps on the moon. The party won’t stop on December 1, when Eldorado wraps. In another big coup for Lille, the city has been awarded the title of World Design Capital in 2020, following Mexico City.

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