I first visited Marseille, now my home, more than 20 years ago. Back then, France’s second city was mostly overlooked, unloved and struggling to shake off its rather unsavoury reputation. I have had a ringside seat for the Mediterranean port’s latest metamorphosis. Today it attracts a record number of visitors who are keen to explore one of France’s most exciting food scenes and soak up its unique multicultural energy.
So what has changed? For one thing, tourism has given the economy a timely boost. But it is also creating tension, with many residents accusing the new arrivals of reshaping the city’s economy for the worse. For some, the proliferation of Airbnb rentals epitomises everything that they dislike about Marseille’s visitor boom. Property prices and rents have soared in recent years, including in low-income quarters.
Activists have launched a campaign demonising valises à roulettes (wheely suitcases), which have become a symbol of the phenomenon. Posters in both French and English regularly appear in downtown neighbourhoods, urging holidaymakers not to use Airbnb. Around the city, there’s graffiti declaring that tourists are not welcome (a similar strategy was adopted in Amsterdam).
This week activists broke into an Airbnb property and spray-painted its interior with slogans denouncing property speculation and “phantom apartments”. Others have targeted short-term rentals by changing locks or filling keyholes with glue. While City Hall is finally stepping in and promising to do more to regulate Airbnb, the debate over how much Marseille should embrace tourism continues.
While many residents – myself included – don’t want their city to be taken over by tourists like Venice, Barcelona or Lisbon, the people of Marseille should realise that the industry in some form is crucial to its upward trajectory. Activists might bemoan the presence of wheely suitcases but few want the city to slip back into the malaise of yesteryear.
Mary Fitzgerald is a Libya specialist and Monocle’s North Africa correspondent. She is based in Marseille.