The number of people visiting the World War II cemeteries, museums and battle sites along the Normandy coast of France has soared in recent years, creating a tourist windfall but generating criticism that a harrowing chapter of history is being sullied by crass commercialism.
The tourist surge began in 1994 with the 50th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings, in which hundreds of veterans took pride of place for the first time.
The following year some 2.9 million people visited the region specifically to explore the war’s legacy, a figure that has grown steadily to nearly five million annual visitors each year.
“The first museums were created four or five years after the war, first by local collectors who gathered up what the soldiers left behind, then by local museums,” said Dominique Saussey, a D-Day specialist at the Normandy tourist board.
The jump in war history tourism later got a major boost with the opening of the official Caen Memorial Museum in 1988, which now attracts around 370,000 people a year.
But it’s the military cemeteries that have long attracted the biggest numbers, in particular the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, where 1.4 million people came last year to honour the 9,300 graves marked by crosses or the Star of David.
The 22,000 British dead are spread across 18 cemeteries, and in recent years the German cemetery at La Cambe, with 21,000 graves, has started attracting around 450,000 people each year.
“For a long time we only talked about an Allied public, but now we’re focussing on a German public as well,” Saussey said.
In 2017, 20 percent of Normandy war visitors were British, 15 percent Dutch, 14 percent American, 11 percent German, and 10 Belgian, her office said.
Alongside the dozens of memorials and sites, however, a range of new tourist operations have emerged, offering souvenirs, Jeep and tank rides, and even a D-Day “escape game”.
“We want to try to make what the American paratroopers did on the night of June 5-6 come alive, so that younger generations will then look at our displays,” said Emmanuel Allain at the “D-Day Experience” museum at Carentan-les-Marais.
For 13 euros ($14.50), visitors can have a seven-minute ride in a flight simulator for a C-47 cargo plane, which dropped 13,000 US soldiers at Sainte-Mere-Eglise for the Normandy landings.
Since opening the simulator in 2015, the museum now has 130,000 visitors a year, up from just 20,000 previously.
Its gift store sells a D-Day Monopoly board game, a 7,500-euro helmet or a 14,500-euro jacket.
A few kilometres away, “Le Blockhaus” will soon open its escape game to re-create the June 1944 beach stormings, while the Normandy Victory Museum offers 10-minute tank rides for 39 euros.
And near Sainte-Mere-Eglise, groups can sign up for a 400-euro theatrical nighttime re-enactment of the parachute landing, complete with Jeep tour.
“At a time when veterans are disappearing, we also have to reach youths, with visits oriented toward a generation that doesn’t have any family or emotional ties to the landings,” Saussey said.
‘Lying to people’
It’s an approach that specialists have denounced as a cheapening of the sacrifices made by the thousands of Allied troops who braved Nazi fire while wresting Normandy, and eventually all of France, from the Germans.
“They’re lying to people,” said Stephane Grimaldi, director of the Caen Memorial Museum. “Combat experience can’t be transposed, it’s nearly impossible even to describe.
“Turning these grave subjects into attractions is unacceptable. You have to explain the complexity of war, and the dead,” he said.
But the Caen memorial, where attendance levels have stagnated in recent years, will open this month an immersive, 360-degree cinema for recounting the landings.
Critics have also noted the historical inaccuracies at many of the new museums and attractions, such as one claiming Sainte-Marie-du-Mont was the first French village liberated on the continent — it was actually Ranville.
“You have both a multiplication of consumer items and of places with no credible historical backing,” said Bertrand Legendre, a Paris university professor who was born in Sainte-Marie-Eglise — where you can find a “D-Day beer” next to a number of supposed military antique shops.
“It’s almost like turning it into an amusement park, with the very real risk of forgetting the tragic dimensions of the war,” he said.