How to reconcile tourism and sobriety? Ecotourism in action

Union is Strength is a European journalism competition organized by in partnership with the European Commission. Forty journalists, French and European, were selected to work as a team to write articles on EU-funded projects in Europe. A perspective on what the EU can do in its regions.

In Port-La-Nouvelle and Saint-Lucie (France)

“Look over there, there are shelducks. It is the only species of duck that lives in a salty environment. Claudine Loste, deputy waterside delegate of the Languedoc-Roussillon Coastal Conservatory, pays us a visit. Large bodies of water line our path. We’re thinking of sharing the sea, but it’s not the Mediterranean! Although it is very close, we drove on the lagoon, between the lagoons of Bages-Sigean and Ayrolle, in the Aude. The service road of the Montpellier-Barcelona train line takes us to the island of Saint Lucia. Road edges are not cut. The vegetation is high. Without a doubt, we arrived at a regional nature reserve.

It is in the town of Port-La-Nouvelle, on the banks of the Robine Canal, a work classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that an old agricultural property, dating back to part of the 17th century, stands.and century. Due to its abandonment, the building was seriously damaged. In 2013, the Conservatoire du Litoral thought about giving the building a second life.

Restoration works are carried out for four years to save the heritage, half of which are financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) of the European Union, led by the Occitania region. The facade of the mansion has regained its former colors: pastel green and red. ONE “magnificent empty shell”to which it was necessary to dedicate a new utility before starting the interior renovations.

A refuge instead of an accommodation

In 2016, the Conservatoire du Litoral and its partners agreed to develop ecotourism in the area. Specifically, it is about welcoming tourists respecting the environment and energetic sobriety. A first project is assembled by a design office. He planned to renovate the property to make it an inn with guest rooms at very high prices, but with guaranteed comfort.

“It was a project that supposed, in order to be economically balanced, to receive many people”, explains Claudine Loste. Accommodating so many people in a nature reserve and using so much energy was not possible. “We didn’t want to twist the building so that it would accept functions, a number of people, profitability…”adds the curator.

After reflection between 2018 and 2019, it is the idea of ​​a coastal refuge that finally remains. a trip to Senetosa Lighthouse Hut, in Corsica, convinced them. In simple comfort, hikers come to eat and sleep for a night or two. “We said to ourselves, “this is what we are going to do!” It suited our project better.”remembers Claudine Loste.

“This led us to redefine the project in a much more sober way, in terms of comfort and the number of people to accommodate”, she adds. The target clientele is no longer the same. This tourist offer is aimed at “nature lovers” who would like to visit the farm during the day or spend the night there, for around twenty euros. Accessible only on foot or by bicycle, the area would primarily welcome hikers, hikers and cyclists using the EuroVelo 8 route, which runs along the canal.

The Santa Lucia Regional Nature Reserve covers 825 hectares. | Hugo Coignard

The choice of sobriety

Workers are busy at the site, amidst bricks, piles of gravel and sand. The interiors are still empty, but Claudine Loste can already imagine what it will be like: “Here will be the kitchen, with the dining room for dinner. Here, it will be a small bike room, for charging e-bikes if enough power is available. Because the refuge will have little electricity. The connection was made to running water, but not to the electrical network. Only solar panels will provide electricity, plus a gas group if needed.

Therefore, to keep the energy required to a minimum, there is no freezer or dishwasher, but only a refrigerator. The shared dormitories will also not be heated, which limits the availability of sleeping in the summer months, between Easter holidays and All Saints’ Day.

For heritage architect Sylvie Rapp, one of the main contractors on the project, it is now “the building that defines the use and not the use that defines the modifications of the building”. The principle is simple and yet it changes many practices.

“For example, we didn’t say to ourselves, ‘How many photovoltaic panels does it take to cook and wash 30 people?’ We said to ourselves, “How many panels can we put in without it being ugly and being adequate?” From that, how many kilowatts are produced? And of those kilowatts, how many people can we accept and at what level of service?”, argues Claudine Loste.

The Sainte Lucie area under construction, bounded by the Robine canal. | Hugo Coignard

An ecological approach from the construction site

Photovoltaic panels are among the few new materials introduced at the site. Because ecotourism is designed from the construction site. “We use original and renewable materials. We work on Gard stone, which comes from the region. The terracotta roof is made in Limoux [à 60 kilomètres à vol d’oiseau]. For the floor, we are also essentially terracotta»explains the architect.

In the property’s garden, a man frantically slaps himself to avoid mosquito bites. Alain Bergé, curator of the Sainte Lucie Regional Nature Reserve, has been supporting the project by paying special attention to biodiversity since the project’s inception. Small shelters were installed, for example, to allow the bats to find a new habitat during construction. The Regional Natural Park of Narbonne in the Mediterranean is also responsible for helping future operators of the refuge in their training in biodiversity issues on the island, visited by an average of 40,000 people per year.

A shelter for bats installed during the works. | Hugo Coignard

Adapt to climate change

The entire project was designed to be “sober and economical, but above all adapted to our means: we have little energy and want to spend as little water as possible”, summarizes Claudine Loste. Landscape architect Nathalie Silovy also strives to build a sober water system for the vegetable garden she wants to recreate:

“As there is a natural water source, we will not use city water for irrigation. The water is deflected by gravity. It’s a vernacular system, very close to what they could have done at the time.”, explains the landscaper. Plants planted are also adapted to their environment. “We are not going to put an olive tree. There are no olive groves here. The species must be adapted to periods of drought and floods.justifies Nathalie Silovy.

Because the area is classified as a flood zone. Necessarily taken into account in the specifications, the bedrooms and living spaces were placed on the upper floors. The ecotourism approach must take into account the consequences of climate change, especially as the forecasts for 2050 are not encouraging. Rising waters off the coast of Narbonnais threaten the Sainte Lucie area in the long term, according to data from Central climate. Until then, it will be possible to come and admire the fauna and flora of the nature reserve from the refuge: the opening is scheduled for spring 2023.

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This article was produced as part of the Union is Strength competition, which received financial support from the European Union. The article reflects the opinion of its author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for its content or use.

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