Paris Seeks to Erase Sore-Loser Image With Olympic Gold Offer

Paris Seeks to Erase Sore-Loser Image With Olympic Gold Offer
British visits to the Paris region fell 12 percent from 2009 to 2010, with 1.9 million coming in 2010 and staying 4.7 million nights. Photographer: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg

Parisians pouted and screamed “foul” when the French capital lost the bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics to London, making them look like sore losers. Now, a tourism body is trying to make amends.

The Paris Ile-de-France tourist board yesterday unveiled a plan, called “Celebrate Your Victories in Style” to award an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris for two days to two British people for every gold medal a U.K. athlete wins at the Summer Olympic Games next month.

“We are really anxious to show that we are happy that the Olympic Games are taking place in the U.K.,” Jean-Pierre Blat, the tourism body’s head, said in an interview in Paris.

The offer marks a reversal from seven years ago when the winning bid to host the 2012 Summer Games was announced in Singapore. Then, Parisians, starting with Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, attributed the French capital’s failure to “something other than Olympic principles,” insinuating that the city had been ousted from its perch as the favorite by unfair means.

Hosting the Olympics would have added 40 billion euros ($50 billion) to the French economy between 2005 and 2019 and created 45,000 permanent jobs through tourism and follow-on sporting events, a Boston Consulting Group study had said. For Paris, the defeat had marked its third failed attempt to host the games in 20 years, after losing bids for 1992 and 2008. There hasn’t been a Summer Olympics in France since 1924.

The French are now trying to recoup some of the lost revenue by reaching out to the British, who account for more visits to France than any other nationality.

Olympic Gaffe

When they lost, the French came across as “very arrogant, very pretentious,” said Blat. A headline in the French press that still really eats at him was “Olympic Games: 2 hours, 45 minutes from Paris,” he said.

“I really suffered from the French reaction,” he said. “We don’t know to what extent it gave a bad impression, and I know the French -- they’re not like that.”

Anglo-French relations sank to a low when Liberation quoted then French President Jacques Chirac in July 2005 deriding British cuisine and agriculture. The newspaper quoted him as saying that the “only thing the British have ever given European farming is mad cow disease,” and that “you can’t trust people who cook as badly as” the British.

Blat’s group is betting it can win over those offended by France’s Olympic gaffe with the contest announced yesterday in London at the French restaurant Gauthier Soho.

Falling Tourism

The effort comes as the number of British visitors has started to head south in tandem with the economic crisis cutting into leisure spending.

British visits to the Paris region fell 12 percent from 2009 to 2010, with 1.9 million coming in 2010 and staying 4.7 million nights. Americans made up the second-biggest number of tourists to the French capital, although their visits rose 1.8 percent to 1.5 million in 2010, according to the Paris Ile-de-France regional tourism board.

The large number of British visits in part reflects that the English Channel no longer counts as a moat between the U.K. and France, Blat said.

“At two-and-a-quarter hours by train, we’re no longer in the mindset of an international trip,” referring to the current length of the Eurostar train ride from London’s St. Pancras station to Paris’s Gare du Nord.

France is the most visited country in the world, receiving 79.5 million tourists last year compared to 62.3 million in the U.S. and 57.6 million arrivals in China, according to a May report by the United National World Tourism Organization.

New Ideas

Companies geared to serve tourists account for about 10 percent of French enterprises. One in five of those are in Paris, the tourism board said in its report for 2011.

The British also lead the world in repeat visits to France, Blat said. The group is working on selecting activities and sites beyond the “Grandes Dames” of Paris tourism such as the Notre Dame cathedral or the Eiffel Tower, to highlight what the U.K. winners may have missed on earlier trips, Blat said.

Journalists from organizations including Bloomberg News were invited to help determine what winners could do: tour the 16th century Fontainebleau chateau, learn to make traditional macarons -- with no cream filling, according to the Domaines des Macarons de Reau -- and a dinner cruise on the Seine river.

Contestants enter the competition on the Paris Ile-de-France Tourist Board’s Facebook page. The federation estimates between 20 and 30 gold medals for British athletes, budgeting about 650,000 euros for the winners’ trips, with partners in the region helping defray costs for food, lodging and tickets.

British Gold

The Federation’s British gold medals estimate is a bit more ambitious than projections from Daniel Johnson, an economics professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Great Britain will probably mount to the top of the podium 20 times, according to the projections.

Johnson’s model focuses on per-capita income, population and the advantage of hosting the games or living nearby. Based on six decades of historical data it purports to have a success rate of 95 percent for predicting gold medals.

For the Federation, that will mean at least 40 British visitors to Paris, with the possibility they will want to come back and tell their friends that the French have long gotten over their Olympic defeat.

The British must know deep down that the French “aren’t disagreeable,” Blat said. “They wouldn’t come back if we were really like that.”

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