[German gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer. Photos by Tamara Olton.]
This year marked the 70th anniversary of the D-Day events in Normandy, France. By the end of 2014 an estimated five million people will have descended on the area’s beaches, monuments, and memorial sites spread across over seventy-five miles of the Atlantic coast. While tourism in Normandy is certainly not new, the skyrocketing number of tourists is. Estimates for this year include an additional million visitors above the average to this relatively small area; approximately two hundred thousand visitors arrived during the official D-Day ceremonies of June 5, 6, and 7 alone. Roughly 3.5 million people live in Normandy, meaning this year’s tourists outnumber residents by one and a half million. This is quite a ratio in an area that has no large towns and whose population lives in quiet rural villages and farm lands.
There have been many locations world wide in which tourism has re-shaped the cultural and geographic landscape for the worse. This has been especially true in relatively small areas that do not have the capacity to support quickly growing numbers of tourists.
Would this be true in Normandy, as well? I traveled to Normandy in September of 2014 to learn more about this beautiful region and experience the historical events. I also wondered how increased tourism affects Normandy. Do the swelling numbers of visitors have a negative effect on the very monuments they have come to see, and are tourists respectful of these monuments?
And perhaps, most importantly, how do locals cope with the influx of visitors, especially during this momentous year? How is a balance struck between preserving the lands and monuments and allowing locals to live life as they see fit?
Many of the answers were surprising.
World War II tourism—are visitors respectful of the history?
One might assume that in historically significant locations visitors would know to behave themselves. Recent history has proven, however, this is not always the case. In 2013, a 15-year tourist scratched his name into a 3,500 year old temple in Luxor, Egypt; the same year, a father-son duo scratched their names into the Colosseum. Monuments around the world are defaced by tourists hoping to immortalize their visits with their names or initials. Would Normandy be the same?
In fact, manicured gardens and beach grass–surrounded monuments seem to be well cared for and remarkably lacking in graffiti or other defacement. Of the many locations and memorials I toured, none gave any impression that anything but reverence was expressed by those in passing. This is, a local explained, because the people that visit here are “easy going. Because the people come not to go on holiday—just to get a good hotel and swimming pool and drink a lot. They are here for [D-Day] beaches, historical tourism. They have a different attitude.”
A guide’s point of view
Alain, a stoic man, voice accented with British pronunciation and French joie de vivre, lives half of the year in his hometown two hours south of Normandy and comes here to work the other half during tourist season. When asked why he makes such a journey and lives half his life away from his friends and family of his hometown, he tells us how important it is to keep the memories of Normandy alive. One way to do this is to lead educational tours, such as the one we take that day. Alain takes us from location to location for ten hours, never losing energy, spilling out historical stories and facts as though he had a never-ending supply.
Alain often calls the soldiers “boys”, emphasizing that many of them were just that. Many lied about their ages to enlist; this is true on both sides. “Some of the German soldiers were just 15, 16 years old,” he tells us. “Just like the Americans.”
I ask him if the tourists he leads each day are respectful of what they see. The answer is a definitive yes. I ask him how the locals feel about so many people coming to visit this area.
“Many here live on tourism,” he tells me. “Not just those working as guides or those tending the monuments. Many live on farms that supply food to tourists as well.” Alain reiterates that he has heard no complaints from locals about the millions who tour these narrow streets and quiet villages each year. While more and more tourists come each year, he tells me, the numbers are still bearable.
When asked if he sees any negatives to tourism within the region, Alain says, emphatically, no. “We are here. We are here to honor the veterans. It is a way to make money, of course, but it’s a way to keep the memory of the boys alive. Not to be forgotten. We must never forget this.”
Bayeux: Simply a stopping point on the way to the beaches?
While many small towns and villages dot the Normandy landscape, the most popular for tourists visiting D-Day beaches and museums is Bayeux. A town with a two thousand year history, it is most famous for the imposing Cathedral of Notre-Dame rising high above the town’s buildings, and the Bayeux Tapestry, a 230-foot long embroidery which details in pictures William the Conqueror’s 1066 conquest of England. Approximately a million people visit the tapestry each year; this is, however, barely a fraction of tourists within Bayeux. The majority are here for what lies north.
Myriam, the owner of La Gitane bar in old Bayeux, pours me a traditional French drink of beer with Picon, an orange-flavored liqueur. I ask how she and other locals in Bayeux feel about tourists coming not to enjoy the town itself, but to use it as a stepping point for World War II history. Does it bother them that tourists often do not see the historical and beautiful town as being independently worthy of a visit?
She shrugs, as if the question were irrelevant. Tourism gives many people their jobs, she explains; tourism in some way touches almost all industries of the area. “How can you complain about people giving us business? You cannot do business and complain at the same time.”
Does she find the tourists to be respectful? “There are no problems with tourists in Normandy because they want to be here, for personal and historical reasons. The war isn’t something ‘fun’, but the people have a good time.”
Myriam pauses to speak happily to a French group that enters the bar. Around us are other Americans, as well as several other nationalities. People from all over the world visit here.
“In other areas of France it might be different,” she continues, “but people in Bayeux come for a purpose, not just vacation.” They are here to sight-see, she explains, but a different kind of sight-seeing.
Myriam refers to the flags of several nations that fly alongside the French flags throughout the region. She smiles.
“There is a special link between us now, because of the landing.”
Balancing history with everyday life
Locals live on with their lives much as the soldiers who fought here would want them to.
In a field stretched out behind the Lounges-sur-Mer gun battery, a farmer quietly plows his fields, steering his tractor expertly around camouflaged ammunition storage bunkers left behind.
Rows of colorful sailboats line Omaha Beach. This area was a private seaside resort before the war; it was rebuilt as one afterward, as well.
Harness racing on Utah Beach has become popular. As the tide recedes, stretching back towards England, a distinctive “clip clop” of racing hooves echoes across the beaches.
The concept of these beaches and historical landmarks as being a collective “commons” going beyond ownership and control of only the French is pervasive. The people here are keenly aware that while the land is technically theirs, the decisions and changes made here affect others spread across the globe. When the French government considered building a wind farm a few miles off the coast—away from the beaches but still able to be seen from the shore—not only did the French protest, but Americans, British, and other nations joined together to protect the visual integrity of the area. As quoted from The Independent, “These beaches are not just French beaches. They are also British beaches and American beaches and Canadian beaches…. They are a place of great, symbolic importance. We in France have a duty to be aware of that.”
People have moved on to reclaim this land, paying their respects while still believing that the living have just as much a right to it as the dead. A balance has been struck as those honoring the history that occurred here simultaneously live out their everyday lives. While parts of these beaches will be immortalized—paused as if time stopped that day in June seventy years ago—most of the area has been rebuilt. New houses line the yellow sandy beaches; restaurants and hotels dot the landscape. Even the preserved areas look different now; in 1944, the Germans stripped the land of all trees and vegetation, even flattening tall sand dunes and hills, needing full visibility to the sea. Nature has since reshaped the landscape more to her liking, recreating dunes and sandy hills, growing beach grasses and trees. It is hard to imagine this place has ever looked different than it does now.
The best way to honor the dead is for locals to continue their lives—to use once-bloody battlefields as agricultural fields; to swim in the waves that once served as watery graves for thousands of soldiers.
These beaches today are filled with those standing solemnly, remembering, imagining; but also with children laughing as they build sand castles; young couples strolling hand in hand, walking barefoot in the gentle surf; windsurfers shielding their eyes from the bright sun as they determine the best place to set sail. Silently, the events of 1944 play about like ghosts, their significance unseen by modern eyes but replayed in the imagination and memory, while life continues in these same spaces 70 years later.