French hotels polish up their star ratings

France, the world's top tourism destination, is polishing up its hotel star ratings and introducing a new luxury five-star category to help travellers know what to expect.

The new rating criteria will apply to 18,000 hotels across France, many of which are showing off stars awarded under the previous ranking system that dates back to 1986.

The upgraded star system went into force at the weekend when details were published in the government gazette.

The most spectacular change is the new five-star category - already claimed by some 60 hotels such as the world-class Paris Ritz or the Hotel Negresco in Nice.

Industry leaders say the five-star category will help France face tough international competition at a time when the hotel business is struggling to recover from the global downturn.

"The terms of reference were out of date," said Christine Pujol, president of the hotel owners' main trade group Umih.

"Customers did not know what to expect any more from a two-star hotel," added Genevieve Balher, president of the Synhorcat group representing the hospitality business.

A hotel ranked in 1986 may well have kept its stars without undergoing any renovation and there is no control over the ranking, she said.

Under the new criteria, stars will be attributed for a period of five years by accredited auditors instead of a government agency. The prefect or state official for a department will however have the final word on granting stars.

The zero-star hotel is consigned to history under the new regulations, meaning that the lowest possible standard of comfort is now the one-star hotel.

A one-star room should be no smaller than nine square meters (96 square feet) and have a shared bathroom with guests from no more than seven other rooms.

More stars means a bigger room and Internet access, for instance, is now a criteria for a three-star hotel.

"Guests will know that the star ranking is a guarantee of cleanliness and furnishings that are in good condition," said Michele Le Poutre, who helped elaborate the new criteria.

But Mark Watkins, president of a committee pushing for more modern French hotels, said the new rating system was already out of sync with that of other international destinations.

"En suite bathrooms are only compulsory for three-star hotels and you will have to go to a four-star to get international channels on television," he complained.

Watkins said the new rating system would benefit mostly hotel chains and that independent owners will have a tougher time satisfying the criteria.

Industry officials estimate that up to 10 billion euros will be spent by hotel owners in the coming years for renovation work that will allow them to keep their stars.

France draws tens of millions of visitors each year to its tourist attractions, cultural sites and world-class restaurants, but the global downturn has hit the hotel sector hard.

Major chains like Accor, Europe's biggest hotel group, have reported a plunge in sales as bookings slowed dramatically over the summer months with the loss of British and American tourists.

Under the new regulations, any hotel can choose to apply for the star rating, but there is a fee.