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Paul Bird
Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2001 - 04:30 pm:   

Sails but no sales on France's oil spill coast
Paul Webster in La Rochelle


Monday June 19, 2000

Tourists arriving at the Interlude camp site near the Atlantic port of La Rochelle are faced with what looks like an outdoor modern art exhibition.

Odd-shaped, sand-coloured sails, with yacht-style rigging, have been scattered through the seaside site alongside the local pines.

"They really represent missing trees," the owner, Jean-François Mainaud, said.

"Three hundred of the 1,000 trees on the camp-site were swept away in the December storm. The sails will compensate for the lost shade, but unfortunately there is not much we can do about a more damaging image problem."

Even more than the storm, the site on the Ile de Ré, one of France's top Atlantic vacation destinations, is suffering from the oil slick from the sunken tanker, Erika, even though it is more than 100 miles from where the ship went down in the worst storm in living memory last Christmas.

"Only a few drops of oil reached La Rochelle but for foreigners the Atlantic coastline is all one piece, whether it's Britanny or Aquitaine," the Ile de Ré tourist director, Catherine Senand, said.

The Ile de Ré is in Charente-Maritime département, which is squeezed between the better-known Vendée to the north and Bordeaux's wine areas to the south. It has long been a favourite of the British, who account for 5% of the 3.5m summer holidaymakers strung along 100 miles of beach and more than 400 camping sites.

But adverse publicity over Erika and the destructive winter storm has cut bookings across an accommodation range dominated by camping sites that are now investing in hundreds of sails to create shade.

"The French know the local geography better and we will be packed out in July and August but we haven't stopped the drift of British, Germans and Dutch whom we depend on in spring and autumn," said Thiery Bouet, the Charente-Maritime tourist director.

Anxiety is likely to increase over the next few days following an official decision to close at least 11 beaches in Britanny and the Vendée because the damage caused by Erika has not yet been cleared up.

Concern over an oil slick which has not yet sullied the Charente-Maritime has at least deflected attention from lasting damage caused by the December 27 storm, in which 90mph winds killed more than 70 people across France and felled 10m trees.

The zone around the fortified port of La Rochelle took the full blow, tearing off roofs, causing floods, beaching more than 350 boats, destroying sand dunes and carrying so much salt air inland that trees which appeared untouched by the wind have withered and died.

"Much of the damage has been repaired with the help of workers sent from all over Europe but there is a still a titanic job ahead to clear devastated forests," the département's council chairman, Claude Belot, said.

The worst shock was to the Charente-Maritime's £120m-a-year oyster industry, where one sixth of the 60,000-tonne harvest was destroyed. Growers, some of whom lost two years' production, are awaiting £11m compensation.

France's passion for oysters has seen a marked decline since the oil slick, caused by fears about quality.

Marc Texier, a third-generation grower on the Ile d'Oléron, south of La Rochelle, said the crisis could hasten the drift of growers away from a food industry started by the Romans that employs 7,000 workers.

"It takes four years to raise oysters for the market and growers are lucky if they receive the minimum wage (about £600 a month) for a 70-hour week.

"Seeing so much work swept away by the storm will dishearten many who can't afford to repair damage to warehouses," Mr Texier said.

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