France is home to outstanding natural and cultural heritage: chateaux, religious buildings, parks and gardens, fortified towns… The diversity of the sites that can be visited is exceptional, and they wield strong powers of attraction on foreign tourists.
France’s biodiversity is also a major asset: 4,500 native plant species have been catalogued, 943 of them threatened. There are a total of 531 animal species: as everywhere, these ecosystems are weakened by our lifestyle and the reduction of natural habitats. As a result, 38 species are endangered (among them 22 birds and 9 mammals, including bats).
The preservation of this precious heritage is therefore a decisive issue in French tourism policy, in the context of the sustainable development of tourism. A series of rules and bodies form a solid preservation mechanism, supported by strong regulatory protection.
The network of protected areas in France is made up of nine national parks, 163 nature reserves, and over 100,000 hectares of preserved coastline. Added to this network are 45 regional natural parks, each with its own code of practice.
There are 65,000 km of national and regional footpaths (Sentiers de Grande Randonnée, or GR®, and Grande Randonnée de Pays, or GR de Pays®) and 115,000 km of local footpaths (Sentiers de Promenade et Randonnée, or PR).
15 million hectares – more than a quarter of metropolitan France – is covered in forest, which is marked by its diversity due to multiple climates (Mediterranean, oceanic, continental, mountain). 27% belongs to the State and communes, and is managed by the ONF (National Forestry Office), a public body. Private forest is also exploited, i.e. maintained and regenerated, according to strict, measured rules. This voluntary policy of forest management dates back to the 13th century: a unique case in history!
Faced with the risk of forest fires in periods of drought, French public services mobilise with conviction and efficiency, in particular in the southern regions, with legislation allowing limited access to wooded areas in summer, preventive clearing, and patient reforestation of devastated areas. Significant resources are involved, including the creation of a special body of forest firefighters, an air fleet, fixed surveillance posts, helicopter monitoring and mobile patrols. The results are convincing: the number of fires and the extent of the areas destroyed have remained stable for the last five years, and have fallen significantly over the last 20 years.
At the European level, a network of environmental sites, Natura 2000, was set up in 1992. It includes over 1 700 exceptional sites in France, according to European recommendations, and has the dual aim of preserving species, both animals and plants, and natural habitats.
At the international level, UNESCO is a body that is central to the preservation of natural and cultural heritage. France has ten UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and 33 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
There are also various organisations in France involved in heritage preservation, in particular Parcs et Jardins [parks and gardens] and Grands Sites de France [major natural sites of France], concerned with emblematic French heritage sites. These organisations encourage and support site managers in the implementation of environmentally friendly maintenance policies.