MARSEILLE, France (AFP) — With the pandemic pushing people increasingly outdoors in search of nature, one of France's most popular natural attractions has found itself a victim of its own success.
Huge traffic jams, chaotic parking, ever larger crowds, litter and the trampling of flora have forced the Calanques National Park to act.
As well as introducing new restrictions, the park no longer hesitates now trying to put off visitors from coming at certain busy times.
Last week, its board of directors decided to test-drive a tool for alerting people in real time when parts of the park are too crowded in a bid to persuade them to turn back.
The use of quotas for areas of the park will also be considered.
About three million people last year visited the calanques, a series of narrow, steep-walled inlets along the southern Mediterranean coast where turquoise waves crash on to jagged white cliffs.
That's up from at least two million the previous year, the park, near France's second city of Marseille, said.
"The calanques' numbers are huge and maybe a bit higher than elsewhere because we are close to a big city," the park's director Francois Bland told AFP.
Among recent scenes he described to AFP was a narrow 50-metre (164-foot) stretch of beach at one of the bays, obscured by up to 1,200 people, with queues to access the water.
In another spot, there was an incessant ballet of passing boats, he said.
"We have to act quickly and take measures to regulate so we can change people's habits and how they use the park," Bland said.
- Turn back -
Some new rules have already been introduced to curb the trampling and erosion of fragile terrain and damage to seagrasses by boat anchors.
Pathways are being designated to keep people from straying.
Kayakers arriving by sea will no longer be allowed to disembark onto the naturally-formed "pavements" of fossilized lithophyllum algae.
It will also be prohibited to drop anchor in certain calanques, while authorized moorings will be restricted to areas that don't threaten the posidonia seagrass on which the local ecosystem depends.
The park has also begun a kind of demarketing strategy by posting dissuasive photos of snarled traffic and over-crowded beaches on its website, albeit not prominently.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently warned about the pandemic's impact on nature conservation around the globe.
Bland said he also wanted to see the promotion of other nearby natural attractions in order to spread the tourists around.
- No cars allowed? -
Motivating people to ditch their cars and take public transport or cycle to the park instead is another pressing challenge.
But efforts so far have been slow to get off the ground, as park, city and metropolitan officials shift responsibility back and forth.
The deputy mayor of Marseille, in charge of safety and roads, says it is up to the park and the greater Aix-Marseille-Provence metropolitan area authorities to roll out new options.
"If we want less traffic we have to provide public transportation," Yannick Ohanessian said.
He believes that the city is already doing plenty to restrict the area's access roads, which are closed to cars in the summer and at weekends in May, June and September.
Martine Vassal, president of the greater Aix-Marseille-Provence metropolitan area, told AFP that "everyone agrees we must regulate traffic to the park".
But her preferred strategy focuses on the parking situation, which she described as "anarchical.”
Her suggestion: set up a new park and ride system on a nearby industrial site, though the idea is controversial because the terrain is near the park's entrance.
The pressure is on, however, as the park warns that action is now urgent before the summer holidays.
by Sandra LAFFONT
© Agence France-Presse
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