The restored waterfront promenade in Bordeaux. Photo Credit: William Nash

Bordeaux:Tourism's gold standard

January 18, 2017

BORDEAUX, France -- Bruno de Lambert, the snowy-haired descendant of Bordeaux's oldest family-held vineyard, manned his own small booth at the city's annual Tasting here at the Palais de la Bourse. Pouring a Pomerol from his Chateau de Sales winery, de Lambert said with a smile that it had "only taken several centuries" to bring together the great and small winemakers of Bordeaux in such a public setting.

"We've had our chateau since the 15th century," he said. "We've only had this Tasting for four years."

I asked what brought about the change.

"Tourism," he said.

The Tasting in the city's 18th century Palais de la Bourse is one of the more visible testaments to the power of that tourism. In just 10 years, the effort has joined ville et vin (city and wine) into one of the world's most celebrated destinations.

The crowd at the Tasting, held for the past four years at the Palais de la Bourse.
The crowd at the Tasting, held for the past four years at the Palais de la Bourse. Photo Credit: William Nash

The city was a dilapidated, post-industrial mess in 1995 when Alain Juppe was elected mayor and began a massive rescue and renovation of the city. After a nearly 15-year effort, Bordeaux recaptured its 18th-century beauty with a painstaking restoration effort, cutting no corners. 

The entire historical center of Bordeaux was named a World Heritage Site in 2007, making it the largest urban area in the Unesco registry. At the same time, the city re-engineered its layout to be firmly in the 21st century. Urban designers have been studying Bordeaux ever since.

What hasn't been appreciated is the role tourism has played in the Bordeaux story from the very beginning. The renaissance of the city was based on the premise that tourism would be its new economic engine, replacing its lost role as a shipping port to the Atlantic.

Juppe told me in an interview that it "was very, very important that [Bordeaux] attract tourists. That would be our financial foundation."

That makes Bordeaux a rare example of a city that carefully planned to put the tourism industry at the center of its expensive makeover and future. The gamble has paid off.

I came to Bordeaux six years ago to research my book on the global tourism industry ("Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism," Simon & Schuster, 2013). I wrote a section on the city as an example of exceptional tourism planning. When I returned for a two-month stay, I wanted to learn if Bordeaux had lived up to its promise. Had I been too starry-eyed?

Not at all. Bordeaux has surpassed expectations. In 2015 it was named Europe's favorite tourist destination by European Best Destinations. The New York Times ranked it at No. 2 on its list of places to visit in 2016. And Lonely Planet and the Los Angeles Times named it the top city in the world to visit in 2017.

In raw figures, tourism more than doubled between my visits, according to the official figures. In 2010, Bordeaux welcomed 2.4 million visitors. In 2015, that number was up to 5.8 million.

The waterfront along the Garonne River.
The waterfront along the Garonne River. Photo Credit: William Nash

Bordeaux is now one of the top-three French regions for economic growth, with a per-capita income above the national average. It was voted the French city most favored by employees, as well as the happiest. Youth unemployment has been dropping for the last 18 months. 

What's more, that is sustainable growth: Bordeaux was named France's best city for preserving biodiversity and one of the top 10 for creating green spaces and recycling waste.

Bordeaux has become a gold standard for small-city tourism. Lessons abound for places such as Havana, Venice, Barcelona or New Orleans.


'A dark, sad city'

The first takeaway is the hard work and skill required to pull off such a big project. Bordeaux is France's fifth-largest city, and in 1995 it was a dying jumble, its beauty covered by black grime as old as the Industrial Revolution. It wasn't on any tourist maps. Visitors avoided it on their way to the vineyards.

Vintner de Lambert remembered it well "as a dark, sad city. There was debris everywhere." 

Vintner Bruno de Lambert of the Chateau de Sales winery at his booth at the Tasting.
Vintner Bruno de Lambert of the Chateau de Sales winery at his booth at the Tasting. Photo Credit: William Nash

Juppe took on the whole city at once -- no piecemeal tinkering -- in a French version of Boston's Big Dig. The people of Bordeaux were engaged from the start. Stephan Delaux, the city's deputy mayor, told me that the key to good tourism is to do your planning for the people who live there, for the citizens, and if that is done well, then the visitors will be happy. 

It helped that Juppe, a former French prime minister and national figure, could use his connections to push through projects and find financial support.

His vision was classic: Open up the city to the best of what it was and what it can be. Filth was scraped off the 18th-century buildings, revealing many as architectural masterpieces. Roads and highways were torn up, and the city's grid was re-engineered for walking and the easy flow of traffic. Pedestrian-only areas opened up the city center. A sleek, modern electric tram system tied it together, further reducing car traffic and absorbing the growing tourist traffic. Bordeaux became the first official bicycle city in France.

Recovering the Garonne River was the masterstroke. The decaying warehouses and wharves blocking the riverfront were cleared away. In its place, the city laid an elegant promenade that follows the crescent shape of the river quays from one end of Bordeaux to the other. At its widest, the promenade is as far across as a four-lane divided highway. A water mirror and gardens center the promenade in front of the Palais de la Bourse. All told, the project reclaimed 7 million square feet of the old waterfront.

Fruits and vegetables at the Sunday market along the Garonne.
Fruits and vegetables at the Sunday market along the Garonne. Photo Credit: William Nash

River cruise and small ocean-cruise ships dock on the quay, with ample space for tour buses. (The city might consider electric power sources for the ships while they are docked, which would greatly reduce air pollution.) 

A world-class skateboard park anchors one end, sports courts are at the other end with green spaces in between. People jog, bike, roller-skate and amble up and down the promenade from sunrise to midnight. At times, the play of light on the water and sky against the city's neoclassical silhouette resembles an impressionist painting by Claude Monet.

What is missing is also remarkable: There's no clusters of T-shirt and souvenir stands, no neon signs or outsize billboards. Signage and lampposts are discrete and elegant.

In 2004, the city hired Sophie Gaillard to create its wine tourism.

"Bordeaux was closed," she said. "It wasn't clear how to visit properties, how to discover wine. We were very late to wine tourism, and we have the best wine in the world."

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A big part of her job was to convince the tradition-bound Bordeaux wine establishment that tourism could help the vineyards. Inviting visitors to a chateau or offering wine at a tasting in the city could raise the wine's profile and prices, expanding the world's market for Bordeaux wine. 

On a visit to Chateau de Sales, de Lambert told me that he was one of those late to tourism, having finally hired a full-time employee for it just four years ago.

A fog had settled on the rows of the dark, pruned vines, and de Lambert was in a nostalgic mood. This was his last harvest. His son was taking over as director in a few weeks, and he allowed that it was a blessing beyond measure.

"The price of land is so high, if we sold we would all be wealthy," he said.

Foreigners, especially the Chinese, have been offering huge sums for nearby vineyards. But the younger generation -- all 14 cousins -- voted to keep the vineyard in the de Lambert family. Wine tourism will help.

He said he realized the truth of the saying Faire bonne et faire savoir (Make good wine and let the world know.)

Wine as a tourism enterprise

Veronique Sanders, manager of Chateau Haut-Bailly, did not need persuading. I visited her vineyards my first time in Bordeaux and my recent trip, since she was a pioneer. Under Bob Wilmers, the American owner, she opened up the chateau in 2004, added reception rooms and hired a chef from a three-star restaurant to serve gourmet meals. The chateau's reputation grew.

Wilmers was so pleased with the results that when he bought Chateau Le Pape, a small, neighboring vineyard, he put Sanders in charge of turning the 18th century chartreuse, or manor house, into a bespoke guesthouse. 

After a thorough restoration, it opened last year. As I walked the grounds, including a heated swimming pool screened by natural landscaping, I couldn't help but ask how she managed to run this guesthouse.

"Now, tourism is my second occupation, after making wine," she said.

A hands-on exhibit at La Cite du Vin.
A hands-on exhibit at La Cite du Vin. Photo Credit: William Nash

Bordeaux's piece de resistance for wine tourism is La Cite du Vin, the wine museum unveiled in June to ecstatic reviews. 

"A world-beater -- the best I've encountered," gushed the British newspaper Telegraph.

Juppe called it his "Guggenheim," for its dramatic design and the economic heft it brings.

Already the audacious building has become a landmark, as imposing as Seattle's Space Needle. It immediately became France's premier wine museum, and in its first six months drew 50,000 more tourists than expected, according to Gaillard of the tourism office. In addition to its displays about wine culture, it features hands-on exhibits that fill the senses -- and finish with a tasting -- as well as a restaurant with a panoramic view of the city.

Food tourism has naturally followed wine tourism. Suzanne Mustacich, an American wine reporter and author based in Bordeaux, said chefs are opening up restaurants in forgotten neighborhoods.

"This is a farm-to-table, a vineyard-to-table, a sea-to-table region," Mustacich said. "That's very important to these chefs who want to work with great natural resources."

One of those well-regarded chefs is Tanguy Laviale, the young man hired by Chateau Haut-Bailly's Sanders. He has since left with her blessings and opened his own minimalist restaurant, Garopapilles, in the historical city center.

A virtuous circle of tourism at work

Since my first visit, the city has increased its efforts to draw visitors, with a soccer stadium, a concert hall and the continued revamping and greening of the other bank of the river.

In opening up the city to its past as well as its future, Bordeaux has taken on some tough issues that many residents had preferred to forget. 

For example, the city's Musee d'Aquitaine created the first permanent exhibit chronicling Bordeaux's central role in the 18th-century Atlantic slave trade. The wealth of the city in that era was created by exchanging goods for slaves in Africa, then sailing to the New World where the slaves were sold to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

Owning up to its past is a lesson in transparency.

Central Bordeaux is an old town with a modern tram, which reflects the 18th century Palais de la Bourse.
Central Bordeaux is an old town with a modern tram, which reflects the 18th century Palais de la Bourse. Photo Credit: William Nash

The impact from terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice has been disastrous for French tourism. Paris has been hit the hardest. In the first six months, the city had 1 million fewer visitors than the same period last year, creating a loss of $784 million. 

So far, Bordeaux has been spared.

"Some Americans and Asian tourists decided not to come on the river cruises, but that was a small number," said the tourism office's Gaillard. "At worse, we will have flat growth."

The fear of terrorism, however, helped doom the mayor's presidential aspirations. The attributes that have made Juppe a successful mayor for tourism -- in particular his openness to the world -- were held against him in November's presidential primary of center-right candidates.

Juppe began the campaign as the clear favorite, but the flood of refugees from Syria and fear of more terrorist attacks were used against him. He was accused of being too soft on immigration and Islam. His record of keeping the social peace in Bordeaux among diverse populations suddenly looked suspect. He came in second, behind a man who promised to be far more restrictive toward outsiders.

The voters of Bordeaux were happy; they got to keep their popular mayor. And the tourists keep coming, even in this off-season.

The majority are French, and as I discovered in my daily life here, more than a few Parisians decided to stay, including Arnaud Pecriaux, a 27-year old wine seller. He is a member of the 2-year-old Association of Parisians in Bordeaux. He said he moved because Bordeaux has recaptured the French rhythm and joie de vivre that is being crushed in stressed-out Paris.

"Bordeaux is a city but feels like a village where you can walk anywhere and never be late," he said.

That rhythm could be tested next summer when a new high-speed train will carry passengers and tourists from Paris to Bordeaux in just two hours. Real estate prices have already jumped by more than one-third.

Gaillard said the city could handle the expected rise in tourism, but with a caveat.

"We will always want to welcome tourists in the best conditions in order not to have the excesses of Venice or Barcelona," Gaillard said.

Elizabeth Becker is an award-winning author of two books and a journalist who covered national and international affairs as a correspondent for the New York Times, where she shared the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for reporting on 9/11. She served as NPR's senior foreign editor and, before that, covered Cambodia for the Washington Post.