All the buzz in Paris
THE term voluntourism is now in widespread use. The practice seems to be the perfect solution for battling communities that need help and adventurous travellers happy to give it. But there’s increasing concern about the vulnerability of an industry susceptible to abuse.
‘‘One of the concerns is that there are a lot of commercial operators whose guideline is to make a profit and they are not necessarily interested in the onground recipients,’’ says Stephen Wearing, associate professor in the school of leisure, sport and tourism at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Well-meaning travellers often cause more harm than good in remote communities, distributing funds inequitably and displacing local jobs by providing free labour. ‘‘A lot of the commercial operators don’t do that lead-up work. They may not go in [at all] or only go in very briefly, and may not do a proper analysis of how the [community will benefit],’’ Wearing says.
In the 1990s, he helped set up the UTS-based Youth Challenge EVER since the achingly chic Left Bank restaurant La Tour d’Argent announced the installation of six beehives on its rooftop overlooking the Seine, beekeeping has been the new black in Paris.
La Tour’s must-have honey pots, with notes of linden and lavender, are sold in the restaurant’s boutique and used by chefpatissier Guillaume Caron in his fig and honey dessert.
Pollinating bees thrive in Paris — where pesticides are banned — working balconies, parks and treelined boulevards. ‘ ‘ Spraying chemicals disrupts bees’ nervous systems, making them vulnerable to disease,’’ explains apiculteur Nicolas Geant. ‘‘Bees are an important part of the food chain, playing a major role in agriculture by pollinating crops.’’ Nicomiel (Nick the honey, as he’s known) supplies wannabe honey-makers with beehives and swarms from his emporium near Paris.
‘‘Due to the diversity of the flora the best French honey harvests are in Paris,’’ he says. ‘‘In the countryside there are endless fields of crops but fewer flowers.’’ He should know: he installed the hives at La Tour d’Argent, those on the roof of the Grand Palais, several above Louis Vuitton’s ChampsElysees flagship store and two perched on a tower at La Defense, the high-rise business district west of Paris.
He also advised Patrick Roger, arguably Paris’s top chocolatemaker. The windows of Roger’s five Paris boutiques always feature surrealistic sculptural displays and his spring-summer spectacle is dedicated to bees and the 10 hives installed in the garden of his chocolate workshop at Sceaux, near Versailles.
‘ ‘ Between the park and the town’s market gardens, 800,000 bees forage for pollen, resulting in a fragrant, polyfloral honey. There’s plum, cherry and acacia blossom in spring, chestnut and lime in summer, then ivy and heather in autumn,’’ says Roger, who learned the art of honey- making from his parents in the Perche region of France.
Roger’s latest mouthwatering jewels, abeilles (bees), are glossy, bee-coloured semi-spheres of chocolate filled with ganache and thin layers of runny honey, and as one might expect, they’re flying out of his shops.
There were once 1000 hives in Paris, all of which disappeared during World War II. The first of the new generation was installed 15 years ago on the roof of Palais Garnier, which houses the Paris Opera, by Jean Paucton, an opera props man with a penchant for beekeeping at his Palais Royal apartment. When neighbours complained, he was given permission to keep his bees above the opera. Today, Paucton’s honey sells as fast as tickets to a Placido Domingo production. Find it at the opera boutique and Chez Fauchon, the French answer to London’s Fortnum & Mason.
The beehives of the Left Bank Luxembourg Gardens have been buzzing since 1856 and today produce close to 500kg of honey per harvest. It’s sold to the public on the last weekend in September, with proceeds going to beekeeping and honey-extraction classes, for which there’s a waiting list.
Seems you feel a fool in this city without a hive on your roof, balcony or garden. At the exclusive Westin Paris they’re not only using their rooftop bounty in the kitchens but also for honey-based spa treatments. The Westin hives were installed by Stephane Bazin and Guillaume Charlot, creators of L’Abeille du Grand Paris (Paris Beekeepers).
‘‘We’ve set up a dozen private hives in gardens south of Paris, teaching the owners how to maintain their ruches (beehives), helping them make honey. This form of urban beekeeping is our defence against the demise of the bees. Every time you put a flower on your balcony, you’re helping pollination,’’ they say. The duo works free of charge and takes 10 per cent of the honey, which is sold in local markets, by word of mouth and at the Westin. New equipment is bought with the proceeds.
In Paris, beginner beekeepers need a balcony or protected terrace and must register with the Veterinary Authority: Charlot and Bazin can do the rest, as they did for a Parisian family near the Bastille. The family had room for just one hive, and in the first harvest achieved 40kg of honey. They have never been stung, leaving the busy bees to their work: ‘‘It’s incredible how organised they are, keeping the queen warm in winter: groups crowd around her, batting their wings to make heat. It’s a marvellous experience for us and our seven-year-old daughter.’’ latourdargent.com nicomiel.com patrickroger.com Australia so his students would have the opportunity to expand their perspectives while bringing about positive change. But while volunteering with them in Costa Rica and Guyana, he noticed not much of the funding was going back into the community.
To counteract this deficit, the group decided to set up a rainforest reserve with a more expansive reach. ‘‘We established the reserve [in Santa Elena, Costa Rica], built an interpretation centre and changed the school around. At that time it would have been called ecotourism, but a lot of the work was [with] the community rather than just nature-based. I was interested in volunteering and the motivations of the students involved,’’ Wearing says.
The experience prompted him to write Volunteer Tourism: Experiences that Make a Difference, which is now used as a university textbook. And Wearing now sits on an expert committee that advises the International Voluntourism Guidelines Project, which was initiated by The International Ecotourism Society and is supported by Planeterra, a non-profit foundation set up by Gap Adventures.
It draws on input from a wide range of practitioners, including those who receive volunteers and manage local projects, and will be recommended for use by the voluntourism sector in Australia and abroad.
‘‘There is an increasing need for effective tools that help providers make smart decisions,’’ says Planeterra director Megan Epler Wood. ‘‘The goal of the project is to develop a set of criteria that will help international voluntourism providers plan and manage their programs in a responsible and sustainable manner.’’ Although these aren’t the first voluntourism guidelines to be produced, TIES hopes its project goes one step further by encouraging interaction and creating tools for sustainable and responsible voluntourism development.
Beekeeper Nicolas Geant tends to a hive on the roof of the Grand Palais on the Champs-Elysees
Youth Challenge Australia volunteer Isaac Weetra in Vanuatu