Corsicans rail at invasion of the 'tomato-eaters': National pride and mean visitors have hit the tourist trade, writes Julian Nundy in Bastia

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THE middle-aged Corsican sauntered into the Cafe Napoleon wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and a beach towel round his neck. Another customer raised a laugh by telling him he looked like a pumataghju (Corsican for 'tomato-eater'), the local slang for tourist.

The word illustrates the resentment felt by some Corsicans that the tourists who visit their island every year spend too little money. Mostly arriving by boat from France and Italy, families heading for holiday apartments and villas tend to pack as much as they can into their station wagons before they set off. The young backpackers, mainly from Italy, do the same. Modern legend would have it that they survive on tomatoes.

Last year, 2 million visitors chose Corsica as their summer holiday destination while 18 million went to the Spanish Balearic islands. There, the situation is quite different with a plethora of charter flights disgorging passengers every day in Ibiza, Majorca and Minorca. A flight from Paris to Corsica, even with reductions, is more expensive than a charter flight to Greece, or Ibiza.

The latest issue of the Corsican magazine Agora pointed out that the visitors to the Balearics could only take limited amounts of luggage, meaning presumably that they could carry fewer provisions and had to spend more once in place.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that the Corsicans are jealous of the Balearics. Some even express satisfaction that nationalist violence, directed often against tourist projects and poor construction that have simply been demolished by plastic explosives, has slowed development and given the islanders more time to think about what sort of tourism they wish to encourage.

Leo Battesti, a former fighter for the FNLC, the banned National Liberation Front of Corsica, who campaigns for a moderate coalition to promote greater autonomy and an end to the underground fight against French rule, said one merit of 18 years of nationalist violence was that 'it stopped Balearisation'.

Perhaps partly as a result of a reluctance to invest because of political tension, much of Corsica's tourist infrastructure is outdated and inefficient. Bastia, the island's second city, has no luxury hotel, for example.

Another Corsican said a problem was that Corsicans had a poor image: 'We are seen as sullen and resentful. It is something we have difficulty living down.' The image is particularly strong in mainland France.

The Corsicans do often seem to have a chip on their shoulder. A reviewer of a new book describing life for a Corsican child in Paris before the Second World War wrote in a Corsican journal recently that Corsicans then were like North African immigrants today. 'Our fathers . . . were assimilated with Italian immigrants, with the Ritals (Eyeties),' he wrote.

Another problem is service in restaurants on the island. If a French food critic could write last year that Nice was 'a gastronomic desert', most restaurants in Corsica's resorts surely deserve a similar compliment. In Bastia last week, it took two hours for a tomato salad and plate of pasta to be served in a restaurant near the port. In a beach restaurant in Ajaccio three days later, some ingredients were plainly from a tin, something that can hardly ever be said about restaurants on the French mainland. 'The only mystery is which brand it is,' said a young French diner.

Toussaint Canarelli, the mayor of the southern town of Figari and the owner of one of Corsica's best hotels, suggested it was time to instil a new culture, that of luxury tourism. He suggested offering financial incentives to an international hotel group to set up a new four-star hotel and train locals to run it.

This year, as elsewhere, recession and devaluation, particularly of the Italian lira, have cut the number of visitors. In the first two weeks of August, 113,826 Italians arrived, nearly 38,000 fewer than in the same period last year. The Corsicans, as they survey the latest arrivals off the ferries, are hardly charitable in their remarks about visitors.

One national group who do find favour, however, are the British, mainly for historical reasons. 'The English have always been here when we were in trouble,' said one young Corsican, referring to the presence of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean after the French Revolution of 1789 - some 20 years after Corsica came under French rule. He said this helped protect Corsica from some of the worst excesses of the Revolution.

Next month, Corsica celebrates the 50th anniversary of its liberation from German and Italian occupation. A British submarine captain who, one Corsican said, 'carried out good torpedo work' on Axis ships around Corsica will attend the unveiling of a plaque celebrating his exploits.

Vincent Stagnara, a Bastia lawyer who is one of the leaders of the hard- line independence movement, Cun colta Naziunalista, recalled that Pascal Paoli, the 18th century Corsican nationalist, spent 20 years of his exile in London. He has a rosy view of what might have been if Corsica had retained closer links with Britain. Had the short-lived Anglo-Corsican Kingdom, set up in 1794, persisted, he said last week, Corsica would have been independent long ago. 'We would have been too far away for London to want to hang on.'