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Mont Saint Michel Village Tourism Essay

Saint Michel bay, the site is a tidal island: part of the land at low tide, but an island at high tide. Previously called the “Mont Tombe”, its current name comes from the St Michel Abbey (built in the 8th century), which is one of the several historical buildings of the site. It belongs to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites (since 1979), and is nicknamed “the Wonder of the West”. It is the more visited site in Normandy and the second one in France. Only 46 people are living in the village, but more than 3 million people visit it each year (Pierre Le Hir, in« Le Mont-Saint-Michel rendu à l’eau »). Mont Saint Michel is a part of French Culture and has inspired a lot of famous musicians and writers (for instance Guy De Maupassant).

In prehistoric times the mount was land. It became an island because of erosion. But this status was compromised by several human developments: polderisation, canalization of the Couesnon River (the main river around the mont), construction of a causeway to access the site…the French state had to start the “projet Mont-Saint-Michel” in order to remove the accumulated silt and make the Mont-Saint-Michel an island again. More recently, its status of “World Heritage Site” was threatened by a windmill project nearby the Mont Saint Michel. These windmills could waste the view and denature the landscape…

This illustrates the problem of sustainability when exploiting a cultural heritage site for tourism. Except the Saint Michel abbey, owned by the French state, the all site belongs to only three families. Why can we say that Mont-Saint-Michel belongs to the French cultural heritage? What do attract people so much and make them spend money on visiting this place? Who manage such a symbolic place? Is there a danger in melting culture and business?


I-A cultural Heritage

1) A place steeped in history

2) A tangible cultural heritage

3) Which intangible heritage?

II-Tourism in Mont-Saint-Michel

1) Pilgrimage

2) A touristic place

3) The impacts of mass tourism

III-Managing Mont-Saint-Michel


2)Main sources of tension

3) A win-win equation

I) A cultural heritage

1) A place steeped in history

Mont Saint-Michel was previously called “Mont Tombe”. In 708, the archangel Saint-Michel appeared to Aubert, bishop of Avranches, to ask for the construction of a building to rent its merits. Thinking to become fool the bishop don’t do anything, but the third time the archangel appears, it last a proof of its powers: a circular hole in Aubert’s skull. This legend explains the origin of the construction of the first building on the Mont Tombe, a small church dedicated to Saint Michel, in 709.

In 966, Benedictines monks settle in the abbey. They are great builders: they build a church and a lot of accommodations around it. This date is considered as the foundation of the abbey. The place becomes famous and many pilgrims come to see the abbey, and village appears in the following years. After several disasters that discouraged the monks, Robert De Thorigny is elected abbot in 1154. He contributes to make the Mont Saint Michel more powerful, rich, and totally revitalized spiritually speaking.

During the Hundred Years’ war, Du Guesclin is named chief of the mount’s garrison. He wins all his battles and, although all Normandy is occupied by the English army, Mont Saint-Michel remains free. This victory is told to be due to Saint Michel, and ever more pilgrims come to the abbey. After the war, in 1523, Louis XI decides to turn it into a prison. He now nominates the abbot, who is generally not ecclesiastic…this system raises huge contestations and finally ruin the abbey. The Revolution makes thing worst, the site becomes a full-time prison, and all monks are driven out the Mount in 1790

From this date the Mount is falling in ruins, but many writers like Hugo or Flaubert drive pressure on the government to restore the main buildings. The prison is closed in 1963 and the abbey is classified Historic Building in 1874. In 1898, the reparations are done and give to the Mount its current appearance. Tourism become to grow and a new community of monks settle in 1963.

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2) An intangible heritage

The following map of Mont-Saint-Michel was taken from the website “ ».

Figure 1: Map of Mont-Saint-Michel

It is really important to describe, even briefly, the monuments of the village. People come with some expectations of what they will see here.

a- The Abbey

The first bribe of the abbey was built in 708 by the bishop of Avranches, Aubert. Since that time the building totally changed due to many causes like the arrival of new monks, the need to welcome more pilgrims, the fear to face a war or catastrophes such as fires or collapses. The construction of the final building took 1200 years…We can now watch three different styles of architecture: Romanesque, Gothic and Flamboyant. The abbey is divided in 2 parts: the abbey church (where the monks lived) and the Wonder (which is divided in 2 rooms themselves divided in 3 rooms each). The cloister is located inside the Wonder.

An important thing to understand is that the abbey is built on a pitched rock. Moreover the site was really hard to access, especially when carrying heavy raw materials. The simple fact of building something on here can be considered as a real tour de force.

b- Other points of interest

The abbey alone does not belong to the UNESCO list of World heritage site, but the entire village. 63 buildings are protected as Historical Buildings by the French minister or Culture: houses, fountains, garden, towers and walls, churches, chapels…

Some of them are really famous, as for instance:

-The wall around the city. Built to resist to the English invasion during the Hundred Years war, the fortifications are really well conserved. A short walk on the wall gives the opportunity of visiting the towers and offers an amazing view on the bay surrounding the village.

-Tiphaine’s house. Built by the French hero Du Guesclin for his wife during the Hundred Years war, it is all furnished like it was during the Middle Age. It gives a real idea of how knights were living at that time.

-The Bourg. In the South East of the mount stand the village. It has really narrow and winding streets. 12 houses built between the XIVth and the XVIth century still exist.

Mont-Saint-Michel could be a good example of “the world as exhibition” (Bella Dicks, 2004), each “common thing” tourists do here (have a coffee, walk in the street…) is a cultural experience.

-Food! It is an important part of the culture, which must not be forgotten. The omelet Poulard is a particular omelet, where the white and the yalk have been battered separately. Another reputed meal is the pre salted meat (lamb or sheep). Lambs and sheep often graze grass, that have been covered by seawater, that gives a really particular taste to their meat.

c-The bay

The bay surrounding the village offers an amazing landscape. Medieval pilgrims nicknamed the site “Saint Michel in peril of the sea” because of the amplitude of the tides: 14 meters between high marks and low marks. This tide is the biggest in Europe. Victor Hugo use to say that those tides change “as fast as a galloping horse” (original quotation: “à la vitesse d’un cheval au gallop”). Because of this speed and the presence of quicksand, a lot a pilgrims use to die trying to access the village by walking outside the common way. Owing to polderisation and human constructions, Mont Saint Michel became an island only during high tides of equinox (53 days a year). The spectacle of water coming quickly to surround the village is told to be the most spectacular thing to see when visiting the mount.

The bay belongs to the UNESCO list of World heritage site (since 1979). When the tide is low it becomes a natural reserve, and a great place for promenades.

3) Which intangible heritage?

By its history, the beauty of its building and the majesty of the landscape around it, Mont-Saint-Michel is one of the most visited touristic sites in France. It belongs to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites since 1979, rewarding both the human created beauty and the natural beauty of the landscape. But the “Wonder of the West” is not only a nice place, beloved for the beauty of its architecture and landscape. The fascination for the mount began during the middle age in France and was since then transmitted by art.

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References can be found in “classical arts” like literature, painting…a few examples:

-Claude Debussy may have been inspired by the village when composing his piano prelude La Cathedrale engloutie (written between 1909 and 1913).

-Paul Féval wrote about legends of the Mont-Saint-Michel in La fée des grèves in 1850

-In Le Horla (Guy De Maupassant) in 1887, the story ends in the Mont-Saint-Michel

But references can also be found in more modern form of art: cinema, cartoon, and even video games…

-Bruno Bertin created in 1999 and 2000 two cartoons taking place at the Mont-Saint-Michel (called Les archanges du Mont-Saint-Michel: le testament, which means: Archangel of Mont-Saint-Michel: the testimony)

-The architecture and structure of the village inspired Peter Jackson to create the city of Minas Tirith, in his film The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King.

-Several scenes of the film Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the beach) from Eric Rohmer take place at the mount’s bay.

-The Mont-Saint-Michel is proposed as map for multiplayer games in the video game Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood (Microsoft)

A lot of other examples could be found. The important thing to notice is that the “Wonder of the West” has been and still is a real source of inspiration for artists. We can find references in old legends, in literature of the Renaissance, but also in new form of culture as for instance video games.

II) Tourism in Mont-Saint-Michel

1) Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage can be considered as the first form of tourism, induced by religious believing. The first pilgrim who went to the Mont Saint-Michel was the franc monk Bernard, between 867 and 868. In the following years the influx of pilgrims kept growing, especially during the XIth century. A really dense network of routes heading to the mount appeared, and with them hospitals, hostels where pilgrims received charity. Among those routes, called “way to heaven”, many churches and monasteries were built to give a little rest to the pilgrims. The influx grew so much that during the XIVth century, some people died from the overcrowding of the sanctuary. Pilgrims had the habit to bring back from Mont-Saint-Michel a small shell, symbol of the city.

But during the following century, pilgrimage decreased because of the Hundred Years war, but did not stop totally. The legend of Saint Michael, last defender of the kingdom, was reinforced by the heroic resistance of the village and pilgrims came from Netherlands, Rhineland…But pilgrimage continued to decrease, mostly after the French Revolution. Now pilgrims are not numerous to go to the Mont Saint-Michel, but another kind of visitors took their place: tourists.

2) A touristic place

In this paragraph, all data are taken from a study about tourism in Mont-Saint-Michel realized by Odit France (which is a group created to facilitate the development of tourism in France). This study has been realized in 2004. Odit France is a reliable organization; its work is used by a lot of professionals in the tourism industry.

Who is visiting Mont-Saint-Michel?

In total more than 3 million people visit the site each year. 75% of them go there by car: it means that almost 1 million cars take the road to the mount. 75% of the tourists are French, and 25% come from foreign countries: mostly Belgium and Great Britain, but also Japan, North America, Italy, Germany.

Most people come there in couple (40%) or with family (30%). Then follow friends groups (15.5%) and organized tours (14%). The remaining 0.5% contains people travelling alone (often pilgrims) or for business purpose.

Why do they go there?

People who already came there before are really faithful: it is in the mean the sixth time. If two third planned their trip a few months or weeks ago, only on third took the time to gather some information before. Only 26% go to the Tourism Office. For more than a half of them (53%), Mont-Saint-Michel is the main reason of the trip. 63% of total people take benefits from being in the area to go to Saint-Malo, and 25% to Avranches. Only 26% of them know the bay…

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What comes out is that Mont-Saint-Michel has a real attraction power, which contributes to make Normandy the second region for tourism in France. Mont-Saint-Michel is a primary destination, which means that most of tourists here really wanted to go there, that was the first objective of their trip. But tourists often profit from being here to visit other parts of Normandy, almost two third go to Saint-Malo during the same trip.

How do they behave?

The tourists often stay a few days: only 34% stay one day, 16% two days, 21% three days and 31% stay four days. It seems important regarding to the proximity of where they come from: only 18% travel more than 5 hours to go there. For 40% of the visitors, the travel last less than 2 hours. An average visit of the mount takes 3h10 and 25% buy a souvenir (for an average price of 28 euros). The most surprising data is that only one third of the tourists go to the Saint-Michel abbey!

It means that the village is an attractive place by itself, and not only because of the abbey. People come for the atmosphere, the history, the landscape, the global architecture…and only visiting the village is an experience of cultural tourism .

3) The impacts of tourism

Such a mass tourism phenomenon has several impacts on the place where it occurs. 3 million people visit each year a place which has only 46 inhabitants…

The most obvious is of course the economic impact. It is divided in two categories: direct incomes and induced incomes. Direct incomes symbolize the amount directly given by tourists to the cultural institutions. For example entrance fees, guides, souvenirs…In the case of Mont-Saint-Michel, the amount is not really high. For example, the full price to visit the abbey is 13 euros, but important reductions exist (for groups, students…). So this direct source of income represents a small part of the total amount generated by tourism. The most important part must be measured at a regional scale. All tourists spend money for accommodation, restaurant services, transport, shopping. This impact is hard to isolate from the “normal” incomes of the leisure sector. In the region the Manche, where the mount is located, tourism is the third source of incomes (estimated at 475 million euros), after building and civil work and agriculture [1] . The most part comes from annex activities (such as restaurants, bars, shops, other services) with 65% of the total amount. Accommodation comes next with 22% and finally leisure activities with 13%. In 2007 8% of the total employment in Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay was due to tourism [2] . To compare, the average rate in France is 4.6%, in Normandy 4%. Thanks to the tourism sector, Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay is the area where employment raises the more in Normandy [3] .

But mass tourism can also have huge negative impacts. Pollution is of course one of them. Buildings are deteriorating faster, the village is overcrowded…40% of the visitors declare to have been annoyed because of the overcrowding. 50% met circulation problems on the bridge. Another problem of mass tourism is the lack of authenticity. Tourists want to experience what they are happy to believe to be the authenticity of a place, but not necessarily its reality (McKercher and du Cros, 2002). So the place changes to meet the tourist’s standards…the tourists are given what they wanted to see, how they imagine it was (Bella Dicks, 2004). For instance, Tiphaine’s house has been totally made up, decorated with old furniture from everywhere in the village, to show how life was at this time. But it is presented as her house, because people want to have an accurate view on it. Tourism has become responsible for rendering most events superficial (Boorstin, 1964: 77-117).

What is the mechanism leading to such situations? Who have to pay for the building of new infrastructures, which will allow to welcome more tourists, and to be more respectful of the environment?

III) Managing Mont-Saint-Michel

1) Stakeholders

Even if the all island belongs to the French cultural heritage, the French state only owns the abbey. The management of Mont Saint-Michel was given to the National Building center, which is in charge of more than 100 historical buildings. It missions are to enhance the site, to restore and protect it, and also to publish literature that have a link with the Mont Saint-Michel.

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All the other buildings are owned by only 3 families, which are sharing both economic and political power. Jean-Yves VETELE is the director of the firm Sodetour, which run several hotels in Mont-Saint-Michel. Patrick GAULOIS, mayor between March 2001 and March 2008, also owns restaurants and hotels. But the most powerful is Eric VANNIER, the current mayor (since 2008). He is the owner of the group “Mere Poulard”, which is in charge of half the restaurants, hotels and shops of the village. The group also owns some museums. The group really belongs to the traditions of Mont-Saint-Michel. Annette Poulard owned a restaurant at the beginning of the nineteen’s century. The place quickly became famous thanks to its omelettes, and Annette opened new restaurants and hotels in the village. Now the group not only own hotels and restaurants, but it produces and exports biscuits all over the world, and benefits from the image of authenticity of Annette Poulard. This stakeholder has a key role because he takes part both in the tourism industry and in the management of cultural heritage.

2) Main sources of tension

Nowadays, Mont-Saint-Michel bay is threatened by the accumulation of silt. This phenomenon is natural, and occurs in every bay. During high tides, the stream is fast and brings a large quantity of sediments to the bay. But during low tides, the stream is much slower. The biggest particles start to deposit. As the tide is going out, the particles progressively deposit. Usually, rivers clean up this accumulation of silt, and slow down the phenomenon: that is called the “flushing effect”.

But human constructions disturb this role in the case of Mont Saint Michel bay. The long tradition of polderisation started in the VIIIth century. Many dikes were built to divert rivers and create new fertile lands. In 1859 and 1863, two submersible dikes are built: they divert three rivers (the Sée, The Sélune and the Couesnon). But they do not protect lands from the higher tides, which carry the more silt: In 1879, a dike is erected to give a permanent access to the mount. It immediately raised contestations, both from environmental defenders and from artists (Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant).Those interventions accelerate the natural phenomenon and during the middle of the XX century, this phenomenon was to be taken seriously: the island could become a real part of the land in the decades to come.

To face this problem, the French state started in 2005 the project “Mont Saint Michel”.

-The first step of this project was the construction of a new dam on the Couesnon. Built between 2006 and 2008, this dam stated to work in May 2009. It will follow the movement of the tide, in order to establish the flush effect back. The old one was destroyed in 2008.

-Then the river has been cleaned from all the silt, in order the have a stronger stream and to restore the “flushing effect”.

-The destruction of the old causeway and the old parking started last year. A new parking will be built 1.3 kilometers far from Mont-Saint-Michel (the end is planned for 2012). The mount will be freed from car noise and pollution and the visitors will be able to enjoy a little purest nature.

This cost of this project is evaluated at 164 million euros: 75.43 from the French state, 3.80 from the Water Company, 59.62 from the Mixt Syndicate (structure composed by local Territorial collectivities) and 21.15 from the European Regional Development Found (ERDF).

Another debate began in 2009, after the acceptation of a wind farm project near from Mont-Saint-Michel. An increasing number of associations and personalities got revolted, fearing the waste of one of the most famous landscape in France. In fact, the wind farm project concerns an area located 19 kilometers away from the mount. Two other projects in the same area, not accepted yet, raise the same contestations. Powerless, the associations asked the help of the UNESCO. During the summer 2010, the organism declared to be preoccupied by those projects, and asked more details about them. Mont-Saint-Michel could lose its belonging to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. This happened only twice since the signature of Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage (Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in 2007, the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany in 2009…because of the building of a bridge in the valley). The answer will be known on June 2011.

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There is a big debate in France concerning wind farming. Some defend it as a clean source of energy, others argue that it wastes the landscape and makes too much noise. The point is that with the figure of Mont-Saint-Michel, the “against” side have found a powerful symbol to defend. Because it represents the French culture, it is easier to convince the public opinion. For the tourism industry, the loss of the World Heritage site label could be a real disaster.

3) A win-win equation

“In entrepreneurial cities, there no longer appear to be clear demarcation between city government, commerce and civic culture” (Hubbard and Hall, 1998)

Many tensions could occur between the stakeholders that have to work together. But in each case, both parts have the same interest: the more diversified and qualitative the culture display is, the more attractive the place will be. And more tourists means more incomes for the tourism industry. This last makes easier the access to culture and by paying more taxes to the state, bring more grants by the government.

Those efforts, made by both tourism industry and cultural institutions, are more important when dealing with heritage. The risk could be to focus too much on the heritage, to stay fixed on the past. But these activities bring a dynamism that is highly benefic for Mont-Saint-Michel. For instance, concerts are organized almost each month in the abbey. During the summer (5 July- 31 August this year), it is possible to visit the abbey by night. Each year, during the summer, the festival “13 centuries between the sea and the sky” takes place in the streets of Mont-Saint-Michel. This festival of Christian Art targets to make people more aware of the spirituality of the mount by using art. Workshops, spectacles, concerts will be proposed…but also meetings with Christian artists and religious communities, a walk and the pilgrim’s road…Many Christian volunteers take a part in the organization of the fourth edition of this important event. It symbolizes a will to remember the Christians origins of the mount, which have been relegated to the background by tourism. It is a way to reactivate the religious life in Mont-Saint-Michel.

Hervé Novelli, French honorary minister in charge of tourism (2009): “[Mont-Saint-Michel] meets success because of a constant will to adapt and renew its offer”. He puts the emphasis of the importance for the tourism industry and the cultural institutions to work together, in order create always more value, attract more tourists and generate more incomes.


Mont-Saint-Michel is one of the most visited place in France. Steeped deeply into the French history, the mount brings together the beauty of nature and the beauty of human creation. Every building on this island is a real tour de force, and contrast with the majesty of the landscape. Mont-Saint-Michel really belongs to the French cultural heritage because it has both tangible and intangible assets. A large number of tourists, “modern times pilgrims”, are ready to travel and pay to experience it. If tourism can have huge negative impacts on the places where it occurs, it also brings the money needed to save and develop them. There are a lot of sources of tension in such a touristic area. They are even worse when tourism is by far the first source of incomes.

Tourism and cultural management are supplementary and can gain huge benefits by working together. In Mont-Saint-Michel, the weak number of stakeholders is a real advantage. One of them even belongs to both parts: Eric VANNIER, who owns hotels, restaurants and museums. It facilitates the cooperation and the mutual comprehension. This cooperation leads to a constant renewing of the offer, an adaptation to the demand, while preserving the cultural heritage. But totally merging business and culture would be dangerous, and could directly drive to a loss of authenticity. The balance is really fragile…

To protect it, each side must have a really specific role. The two parts are needed to create and keep the balance. Tourism industry has to find out what are the needs and the expectations of cultural tourists. The cultural heritage management has to protect the authenticity of culture. The ideal cultural tourism would be a compromise between those two points of view.

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– The Entrepreneurial City: Geographies of Politics, Regime and Representation, Tim Hall and Phil Hubbard (eds.), 1998

-Histoire du Mont Saint-Michel Patrick Sbalchiero 2005

-Cultural Tourism: The Partnership Between Tourism and Cultural Heritage Management

McKercher and du Cros, 2002

– Culture on Display: The production of contemporary visitability, Dicks B, 2004

-Cultural Tourism-Global and local perspectives, Greg Richards, 2007

-Newspaper Cent pour Cent Basse Normandie n°182, article « L’emploi en Basse Normandie : un rôle important pour les établissements phares »

-Newspaper Le Monde, article« Le Mont-Saint-Michel rendu à l’eau », Pierre Le Hir (àè/29/1997)

-La Manche des pouvoirs naturels : les chiffres clés 2009 (2010)

-International cultural tourism charter  (Managing Tourism at Places of Heritage Significance , 1999)










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