A Transnational Place-based Label for the “Glocal Village”
This is part of our special feature on Tourism: People, Places & Mobilities.
By the early 1980s, some rural mayors in France came to the realization that their villages were dying. In spite of a strong attachment to the rural in the French collective imaginary, many factors had contributed to rural decline and exodus since the early twentieth century. The devastation left behind by two world wars, the mechanization of agriculture, political choices at the national level, the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union, and the acceleration of globalizing dynamics were among those reasons influencing stagnation in rural development in various regions. Not surprisingly then, it was in 1982 that a group of sixty-six rural mayors decided to unite to attempt a way out of this situation by creating an association, the Most Beautiful Villages of France (Plus Beaux Villages de France). The inspiration emerged out of a general audience book by the same title that had been published by the Reader’s Digest in the late ’70s and in which the richness of French rural cultural and architectural heritage was highlighted. Thus, the original members of the Association were those villages featured in that volume and whose mayors had responded positively to the call by the charismatic and visionary mayor of Collonges-la-Rouge (Corrèze) who piloted the venture. Indeed, echoing the preface of the Reader’s Digest book as it articulated the urgency of saving the village as a conceptualization of the rural…
“This instinctive grouping of houses that we call ‘village’ is meant today for a resurrection that is easy to explain. Finished is the time of abandoned villages, gone that of dead villages! Everything is going so fast that we must hurry to secure the beauty of these harmonies born spontaneously. France has no lack of villages: out of 33,000 communes, most are villages. But today rare are those -and rarer will they be in the future- that constitute the testimony for an entire regional civilization where are naturally blending stone from the quarry, local wood, know-hows accumulated almost genetically by lineages of builders, and this unconscious adaptation to the site” (5),
… he spoke about the duty of preserving local heritage, albeit in less optimistic terms, when he wrote to his colleagues in 1981 in his first attempt to share his idea and mobilize them around a project that was yet to be determined:
“… surely, this responsibility is heavy, even more so because our inhabitants and visitors are, legitimately, more demanding than many others, wishing we preserve and even enhance this inestimable heritage, envied by many foreigners and constituting our Nation’s pride. But alas, our needs and our burdens are, more often than not, well superior to our resources and means and, in spite of our good will and that of our Municipal Council, our problems often remain unsolvable… First, the benefit of such an Association would be that we get to know each other, but it would also allow us to benefit from each other’s personal experiences and study the specific problems encountered in administering these villages…Therefore, we could, through this Association, further draw general attention to our heritage and even perhaps prepare together, with the goal of presenting them to Public Authorities, either wishes or propositions susceptible to bring us additional aid or facilitate our task, under whatever form.”
This letter would become the fertile seed for a rural development project, which, while starting in France at the local level, has now spanned across fourteen additional countries on three continents and continues to gain momentum as it spreads. Constituting a rallying cry in defense of the rural world, the budding association was also supposed to be a space for concertation, exchanges of best practices, and a stage to increase the visibility of rural localities in the face of national government policies and institutions, which rural mayors generally felt had abandoned the rural world. Focused on preserving and utilizing their local resources as assets to ensure their economic and cultural survival, the initial members were at the time far from imagining that their still undefined development initiative would have become thirty years later a recognizable brand – or “label,” as it is called–on the French landscape, but also that it would have inspired people all over the world in rural areas facing similar difficulties. The project being designed around the strategic triad of economic development, cultural resilience and heritage pedagogy, it quickly became clear that tourism was the industry most relevant to support these goals, especially as rural tourism specifically was undergoing a transformation in terms of touristic offerings and consumption motives.
A government-sponsored report concluded in 2012 that rural tourism in France had been growing steadily since 2007, both in terms of number of nights booked and on-site spending, although the latter at a slower pace. In 2016, it was estimated that rural tourism captured one third of all nights booked by tourists in France, with an observed diversification in the types of available lodging options, for example campgrounds, furnished short-term rentals, bed & breakfasts, guest rooms, hotels, or shared houses. Changing habits in the ways in which tourists consume recreational spaces are also responsible for a diversification of the activity in the sector, leading multi-scaled government undertakings to increasingly encourage and support the development of initiatives in the area of cyclotourism, oenotourism, ecotourism, river tourism and gastrotourism. One successful example of such project in cyclotourism is the Loire à vélo network, which has received generous public investment and gathered many different actors since 1995 along 800 km of bicycle path across two regions and six départements. In the wine tourism realm, Atout France, the Agency for Touristic Development in France, estimates that oenotourists amounted to 10 million people in 2016 (5.8 million of them domestic tourists), a 5.2 billion Euros economic weight, with 38 percent of the foreign clientele being European. What these numbers may not reflect well is what tourism scholars have observed in terms of the spatial differentiation for these successes across the national territory. But in spite of these inter-sectorial variations, as an aggregate, rural tourism remains a dynamic opportunity for development, boosted by a growing desire for the countryside on the consumption side and the modern conceptualization of the rural as an idyllic place of leisure to which people feel connected ancestrally. Changes in lifestyles further facilitate the development of tourism in rural areas. “The aesthetic value of rural landscapes is significant to most tourism activities but at a functional level, societal factors such as greater mobility, increased leisure time and more financial security are all factors that have underpinned the increased popularity of rural landscapes for leisure and recreational pursuits.”
Additionally, this desire for new ways to engage in the rural and to connect with lived experiences there is led by an increased valorization of vernacular heritage or petit patrimoine,  where public history projects increasingly transmit rural culture and local heritage through the mundane, the ordinary and the lived, rather than the extraordinary, thus rendering history of place accessible, relatable, relevant, and intelligible to all visitors rather than reserved for an elite few. By the same token, this expansion of the patrimonial field to landscape features such as a modest washing pit, a barn door, a fountain, a manger, or a terracotta detail on a rooftop translates a renewed interest in regional and local identities, which in turn fosters a re-imagining of the countryside as territorial asset.
“Label” and place representation
“In a competitive context where territories are increasingly establishing brands and proactively engaging in brand activities, places that try to opt out risk becoming invisible, ignored and left behind…Space and place brands and branding now occupy a significant part in the identity and image management elements of territorial development and play an integral role in transformative projects focused upon ‘rebranding’ territories to stimulate new developments.” The brand, here the “label”, by recognizing certain places over others as worthy of receiving its seal of approval, becomes actor in the creation of places as it represents them. It contributes to the transformation of spaces into places by imbuing them with values and highlighting attributes meant to elicit certain emotions. The paradox of place-labels is that they make places special and unique at the same time as they make them into symbols of a whole – here the rural. By including them into a network of places through a strategy of “labelization” which can result in normative pressures on landscape management, the label motivates an expectation of place experience in visitors who specifically seek out places that have received the label.
Today, the label of the Most Beautiful Villages of France is one of those most readily identified by tourists (photo 1), at the same rate as the UNESCO label, although that does not mean that they necessarily know what processes and practices the label encompasses. Numerous labels have appeared on the rural landscape in the last thirty years, leading some to ponder about the “war of the labels.” Increasingly localities seek out an array of labels in order to gain visibility and attract more visitors (photo 2). Whether this enhanced visibility and improved indicators in the number of tourist visits result in direct economic benefit depends on many factors. Many villages do not have a commercial vocation, so that the benefits, in term of tourists’ spending may be felt in the wider region rather than in the villages proper. Hence, quantifying the economic effect of the label can be difficult, although the psychological effect on residents in terms of pride and identity is more evident, as interviews underscored.
Photo 1: Most beautiful villages of France “place-brand” logo – or “label”- on a country road.
Photo 2: Old Most beautiful villages of France logo on the landscape, along with two other heritage logos, Site Clunisien and Grand Itinéraire Culturel du Conseil de l’Europe.
In order to be considered for the label, villages first submit an application. After they pass the initial screening based on the dossier they present, they undergo an inspection. The Association delegate conducts evaluations on the basis of the Charte de Qualité. This document is pivotal in understanding how the Association apprehends rural landscapes. The criteria it lists as elements of a “most beautiful village” reveal a holistic approach to the rural that includes architectural and heritage qualities, as well as evidence of a sound and sustainable local development policy in terms of aesthetic treatment of public spaces, lighting, vegetation, traffic control, parking, and village sprawl, among other things. Interviews with mayors of 25 villages as well as with local development actors revealed that not only do they seek national recognition, but that they also value the integration into a network of places that share the similar goals and challenges, in an attempt to build a translocal social capital as a basis for development.
Translocalism is characterized by movement and socio-spatial connectivity. Often used in the context of migration studies to explain individuals’ mobility, the concept is recruited here to address the relationship between place and the flux of ideas, symbols, representations and practices circulated from local to local through the network-label. Under the label, rural identities are influenced and formed in ways that transcend the boundaries of locality. The label fosters translocality, which rests on local actors who build connections at different scales in “translocal assemblages”. These in turn influence places that are geographically distant as a result of their appropriation and adaptation of nomadic information and know-hows. Today, this translocalism has gone from local to local to global with the emergence of a transnational network of “most beautiful villages” based on the French model.
When the Association was created by the group of mayors wishing to find new avenues for the survival of their village, it was never envisaged that three decades later the emerging model of rural preservation would have a global reach and be adopted in fourteen other nations across the world as distinct as Japan, Russia, or Québec. The experience of the Most Beautiful Villages of France network exhibits the ways in which a “label” involved in a heritage project through local action, all the while contributing to a national-scale project, was able to export its model beyond France’s boundaries and its economic, historical, social, architectural and institutional particularities. This diffusion occurred spontaneously when others borrowed the idea to adapt it to their national contexts, appropriating its selection criteria and methods to reflect their own rural heritage realities (Table 1). The pattern of diffusion of the model reflects the early pre-eminence of the Francophone link with Wallonia and Québec creating their associations in the 1990s. Starting in the 2000s, the progression has been multi-centered, with the idea spreading from the existing European associations towards Romania, Spain, Saxony, Switzerland and even Russia, and with some extra-European regions joining in from Asia and the Middle East. Locally, the associations are often created under the impetus of an individual with passion for heritage preservation and concerns for the sustainability of rural livelihoods in a fast changing world. In spite of drastic differences, these individuals saw in this model a solution to rural difficulties in their own countries and a way to transmit a sometimes endangered rural heritage to future generations. Newcomers continue to knock on the Association’s door, interested in learning, sharing, and being part of a network of places with common concerns. One of the most recent newcomers is China, which is an interesting development when considering the explosion of domestic tourism there and the rate at which rural villages are disappearing there.
Table 1. Chronology of the diffusion of the “Most Beautiful Villages” model
|1982||France: Les plus beaux villages de France|
|1994||Wallonia (Belgium): Les plus beaux villages de Wallonie|
|1998||Québec (Canada): Les plus beaux villages du Québec|
|2001||Italy: I borghi piú belli d’Italia|
|2010||Romania: Cele mai frumoase sate din România|
|2013||Spain: Los Pueblos más Bonitos de España|
|2013||South Korea: Most Beautiful Villages in Korea (English title)|
|2013||Saxony (Germany): Sachsens Schönste Dörfer|
|2015||Russia: Самые красивые деревни России|
|2015||Palestine: شبكة اجمل قرى فلسطين|
|2015||Switzerland: Les plus beaux villages de Suisse (Francophone title)|
|2016||Lebanon: أجمل بلدات لبنان|
|2017||Germany: Deutschlands Schönste Dörfer|
In 2012, the path of the Association of the Most Beautiful Villages of France took a turn when the most mature and established of the national associations joined together into a new structure: the Federation of the Most Beautiful Villages of the World. Like the French Association at its beginnings, the Federation is envisaged as a space privileging exchanges in terms of territorial development practices as well as an opportunity to build common projects in ruralities that are recognized less for their agricultural value and rather more for their heritage significance and touristic appeal. The Federation celebrated its fifth anniversary this past summer and welcomed Spain as its newest member, while other associations, such as Russia, stand as observers. As a young organization, much work remains to be done in order for the transnational network to accomplish its ambitions, which are driven by a will to address the common challenges facing rurality everywhere. One president of an association says: “the décor changes, but we are all the same, all rurals with the same challenges. We do not want to disappear with our villages.” Another adds that “context does not matter, language does not matter, even past wars are erased. We are all in this together, whether we live in medieval stone houses or traditional wooden izba, the rural is the common thread. That matters more than international politics or borders.”
To be part of the Federation, national labels must show that they are sustainable structures. One member reminded all that “we cannot take the risk to admit an association that is not serious about the task. It would devalue the whole project and waste the few resources that we have.” Therefore, national associations must be at least 5 years old and have certified a minimum of ten member-village, which is the threshold considered to consitute the necessary critical mass from which the venture can take off and to demonstrate that the association is functioning beyond ideals and good intentions. Most importantly, each association must show that it has implemented a document akin to the Charte de Qualité, with specific criteria guiding the selection of new villages for the national network. Upon admission into the Federation, associations must pay a small contribution towards a shared budget used for common projects, like hosting the annual meeting, which is held in different countries on a rotating basis.
Although on the whole the Federation engenders much positive thinking for the future, as soon as it was created, dissenting voices emerged. Smaller associations do not have the same concerns or means that the larger associations enjoy. Hence, they often do not apprehend issues from the same vantage point. Also, as a young structure, the Federation has yet to define concrete projects for itself that go beyond the mere sharing of good practices and success stories. One president asks: “What are we? What do we want to be? … That will be the key question we need to answer in the coming years.” And another worries that: “What we have is nice, but it could run out of breath within a few years if we do not come up with concrete actions”. Others fear the alienation of the initial project away from the people and places it is designed to serve because of the risk for out-of-scale marketing strategies that are disconnected from local contexts. And success has come with its own problems. While rejoicing about the enlargement of the Federation as it welcomes new full-fledged or observer members, some also point to burdened practical aspects. Language is a main issue. “The Tower of Babel is hard to manage in Federation meetings. Translators represent a substantial part of our small budgets” tells one organizer. Because the Federation is based on the French association model, French is the official language. While many of the delegations’ members understand French, it was clear during the last meeting of the Federation in Spain in summer 2017 (photo 3) that the arrival of new countries was only going to make this issue more prominent. “We are supposed to be a space of communication, but the truth is that most of us cannot communicate with each other because of language” lamented one representative, adding “common projects? Let’s start with a common language”. However, while some express their skepticism as far as the possibilities, for others, usually newer structures, the Federation is the end goal. One president of a newly created association insisted that “for us the Federation is an obligation. It can ensure our visibility and thus support the work of local actors…” Effectively, the Federation often becomes a tool for new associations to gain recognition and legitimation at the national level. What these variations show are different modalities of appropriating the label to specific ends based on the political and economic peculiarities of each context. Can the Federation survive these dissentions and realize its collaborative potential? The next few years will tell. Motivation is there. As an example, in 2016, the Federation was successfully channeled as a platform to collect much needed disaster relief funds after Amatrice, an Italian “borgo”, was devastated by a powerful earthquake, transforming the network into a space of solidarity across transnational rural people.
Photo 3: Presidents of the associations of most beautiful villages with membership in the Federation of the Most Beautiful Villages of the World. From left to right: Québec, France, Spain, Wallonia, Italy, and Japan (June 2017).
The Association of the Most Beautiful Villages of France represents a successful attempt at building a network of places around development ideals. It started local and went global while keeping its local focus. Place-branding, or “labelization”, has been increasingly recruited in local development policies globally, especially with the goal of attracting tourists to areas that had experienced economic decline and depopulation. As the model spread across the world from local to local, the Federation has gathered the national associations to reinforce a translocal cultural and social capital on the basis of shared patrimonial values that emphasize rural landscape and architectural norms as defined by the label’s exigencies. While the mission remains anchored in the local scale, there is a deterritorialization and “glocalization” of rural heritage through the diffusion, adoption, adaptation, and interpretation of French heritage values embodied in the Charte de Qualité and transferred to other contexts, thus influencing the transformation and representation of labelized places far from French villages. Beyond the specificity of the Federation of the Most Beautiful Villages of the World, this case-study illustrates more generally the institutional path and acceleration of the demand for heritage labels across the world, whether from the place production side (localities, residents) or the consumption side (tourists). It interrogates the triggers for these practices as well as the economic and socio-cultural implications. While globalization is invoked as having contributed to the demise of rural areas in parts of the world, it has also provided an avenue by which a new “villagity” is invented. In remaking the “village”, the most beautiful village transnational model turns the idea of the global village on its head. It is no longer the world that is getting smaller, but the village that is expanding infinitely through dynamic “glocalization” processes of global-scale sharing, borrowing, adopting and adapting of an ideal place-type grounded in the local, thus positioning the “glocal village” at the heart of rural resilience.
Hélène B. Ducros is the Chair of the Research Editorial Committee at EuropeNow. She has conducted research on place-labelization for years and studied the Federation of the Most Beautiful Villages of the World since its inception. Her dissertation at the University of North Carolina (2014) focused on the Association of the Most Beautiful Villages of France as a lens through which to understand heritage preservation, promotion, and valorization in post-agricultural rurality. She is Lecturer in International Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
All translations and photos by author.
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 See our Campus interview with Alan Lew in this issue. https://www.europenowjournal.org/2017/09/05/tourism-place-making-and-mobility-an-interview-with-alan-a-lew/
Published on October 2, 2017.