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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, have been selected to work as a team to write articles on projects financed by the European Union 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 shoreline delegate at the Languedoc-Roussillon Coastal Conservatory, pays us a visit. Large bodies of water line our path. We are thinking of splitting the sea, but it is not the Mediterranean! Although it is very close, we drive on the lagoon, between the ponds 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 mowed. The vegetation is tall. No doubt, we arrive in 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 stands an old agricultural estate, dating in part from the 17and century. Due to its abandonment, the building was seriously damaged. In 2013, the Conservatoire du littoral thought about giving the building a second life.

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

A refuge rather than a lodge

In 2016, the Conservatoire du littoral and its partners agreed on an ecotourism development of the area. Concretely, it is a question of accommodating tourists while respecting the environment and energy sobriety. A first project is set up by a design office. He planned to renovate the estate to make it a lodge with guest rooms at fairly high prices but with assured comfort.

“It was a project which supposed, to be economically balanced, to receive a lot of people”, explains Claudine Loste. Accommodating so many people in a nature reserve and using so much energy, it was not possible. “We didn’t want to twist the building to make it 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 is finally retained. 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 estate during the day or spend a night there, for around twenty euros. Accessible only on foot or by bike, the area would mainly welcome walkers, hikers and cyclists using the EuroVelo 8 route, which runs along the canal.

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

The choice of sobriety

Workers are busy on the site, in the middle of bricks, piles of gravel and sand. The interiors are still empty, but Claudine Loste already imagines what will be: “Here it will be the kitchen, with the dining room for dinner. Here, it will be a small bicycle room, to recharge electric bicycles, if there is enough energy available. Because the refuge will have little electricity. The connection to running water was made, but not to the electricity network. Only solar panels will provide electricity, apart from a gas group if necessary.

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

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

“For example, we didn’t say to ourselves: ‘How many photovoltaic panels are needed to cook and wash for thirty people?’ We said to ourselves: “How many panels can we put without it being ugly, and that it is suitable?” From this, how many kilowatts are produced? And from these kilowatts, how many people can we accept, and at what level of service?”, argues Claudine Loste.

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

An ecological approach right from the construction site

Photovoltaic panels are among the few new materials introduced on the site. Because ecotourism is thought from the worksite. “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 essentially on terracotta as well»explains the architect.

In the estate’s garden, a man slaps himself frantically to avoid mosquito bites. Alain Bergé, curator of the Sainte Lucie Regional Nature Reserve, has been supporting the project by paying particular attention to biodiversity since the start of the project. Small refuges have, for example, been installed to allow bats to find a new habitat during the works. 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 whole project has been designed to be “sober and economical, but above all adapted to our means: we have little energy and we want to spend as little water as possible”, summarizes Claudine Loste. The landscape architect, Nathalie Silovy, is also trying to build a sober hydrological system for the vegetable garden that she wants to recreate:

“As there is a natural water source, we are not going to use city water for watering. Water is diverted by gravity. It’s a vernacular system, very close to what they could have done at the time.”, explains the landscaper. The 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 dormitories and living spaces were placed on the upper floors. The ecotourism approach must take into account the consequences of climate change, especially since the forecasts for 2050 are not reassuring. The rising waters on the Narbonnais coast threaten the area of ​​Sainte Lucie in the long term, according to data from Climate Central. 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 has received financial support from the European Union. The article reflects the views of its author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for its content or use.

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