Saint-Èmilion in Aquitaine is buckling under a massive load of debt due to the sparse population of 2500 people and the economic strain posed by the influx of app. ½ mil tourists during summer. Yes, they shop for wine, visit the caves and the chateaux in the countryside and savour the distinct cuisine of the terroir. All the income, however, goes to the private entrepreneurs in the wine business, while the village carries the brunt of the business accruing to the restoration effort of the medieval centre of this unique part of our World Heritage. (Since 1999 the village and landscape has been officially designated as such).
Last winter the mayor came up with the idea to sell one of the magnificent medieval buildings in the village, the Cloister of Cordeliers, for €750.000. The site, which was recently renovated for €570.000, was sold to Jean-Paul Cales, who is vice president of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and owner of a sparkling wine company since 2008. The sale took place discreetly without a public debate.
This naturally enraged the local business owners and residents and brought the local historical society to fight the decision. One reason was, that Les Cordeliers Cloître traditionally has offered respite for visitors, wishing to escape the throngs. “It was the last public park, free and open to anyone. A place were even the less wealthy could bring their sandwiches and have a drink among the magnificent ruins”, says Jean-Luc Boisseau, who is the local bookseller and member of the historical society. It appears from the hompepage, that although the new owner claims, that he will keep the cloister open – because he has wine on sale – the cloister has already received an upgrade in terms of restaurants, bars etc.
The whole issue raises the question of how a heritage site can establish a partnership with local businesses in order to finance the upkeep of the heritage, which plays a central role in securing the satisfaction of tourists, but in itself does not generate income. Only 10% tourists travel to Saint-Émilion with a singular focus on the “wine”. The rest wishes to experience a mixture of the historical and natural heritage, the food and the wine. Most local tourism entrepreneurs do not accept this.
One-way of financing this dilemma would be to establish a charitable trust fund to secure the village and its buildings. Unfortunately such foundations are not part of the French tradition. Further, a special challenge is posed by the rampant laicité of the French: No funding may be found for religious buildings be they in ruins or not.
As of now, the sale stands. The locals caved in!
The Historical Society at Saint-Émilion
Cloître des Cordeliers
The Tourism site of Saint-Émilion