PARIS (Reuters) - France, the world's top tourism draw, on Thursday announced a scheme to lure in even more tourists with a fund intended to boost everything from hotels to its wine heritage, and urged the French to be more welcoming.
With the attractions of the capital Paris, its Loire Valley chateaux, Alpine ski resorts, Riviera beaches and gastronomic pleasures, France has been the world's most visited country since the 1980s, welcoming 84 million tourists last year.
It hopes to boost that to 100 million by 2020, banking on a sector that already employs 2 million to contribute more to growth in the euro zone's second largest economy, still struggling to shake off a downturn.
"Tourism is a national treasure that needs to be protected, nurtured and developed - that's the aim of all these measures," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said of the launch in coming months of a Tourism Investment Fund (FIT).
In a reference to the sometimes gruff welcome offered to tourists by the natives, Fabius said a humorous publicity campaign would be launched, encouraging the French to improve service levels and help out tourists when they could.
"To put it diplomatically, we have room for improvement here ... When we come up against a foreign tourist, we are all ambassadors for France," Fabius said.
Consumption by tourists in France, including by the French themselves, accounts for no less than 7 percent of national output. But France's visitors spend less than they do elsewhere, a fact which even prompted a government inquiry in 2013.
The 47.1 billion euros of revenues it extracted from visitors in 2013 lagged well behind those of the United States, which managed to squeeze 130.4 billion from 70 million visitors.
Campaigns to boost security for tourists and translate signs at airports into other languages have helped increase the average length of stay, now at around 7 days.
A move to process visa applications for Chinese visitors in less than 48 hours led to a 61 percent surge in visas granted to them last year, a fact witnessed by the bus-loads of Chinese shoppers each day outside Paris's luxury stores.
But Fabius said the aim was to go further, calling on those French TV channels broadcast abroad to promote French regions with feature documentaries while asking for foreign channels broadcasting the Tour de France cycle race to publicise links to tourism websites.
The new tourist fund would have as its flagship shareholder the CDC state investment vehicle and would seek other investors in projects to renovate hotel infrastructure and develop wine, river and sea tourism.
"We come to Paris for the spirit, for the energy, the culture, the shops and for the magic of the city," Bayan Al Barak, 48, a visitor from Bahrain said of annual family visits for which she budgets 1,200 euros per person per day.
"French people have changed a lot in the past five to eight years. They have become sweeter and more welcoming, she said as she wandered along Avenue de Montaigne with its high-end stores.
Xiao Liu from Beijing, on honeymoon, put the daily budget for herself and her husband at 430 euros (3,000 Chinese yuan), twice the monthly minimum wage in Beijing.
She described Paris as "a compulsory step" on a tour of Europe but complained: "There are no road signs in English. Everything is in French. It's really not practical."
Editing by Mark John and Janet Lawrence