CALAIS, France -- When Frenchman Dominique Dupilet heard four years ago that Paris had lost its bid for the 2012 Olympics to London, he hoisted a British flag on the roof of his office in this northern French city.
As president of France's northern department of Pas-de-Calais, just across the English Channel from the U.K., Mr. Dupilet realized the London Olympics could mean big bucks for his quiet French industrial area.
"London 2012 is our economic-stimulus plan," says Mr. Dupilet. "This is the beginning of our development as a sporting home."
Calais, the area's biggest city, is selling itself as the European gateway to London; indeed, it was ruled by the English from the 14th through the 16th centuries. Had Paris won the Olympics, Calais would have faced competition from a host of French regions closer to the capital. But it's just an hour by undersea train from London, so Mr. Dupilet hopes to attract tourists and athletes before and during the Games.
He's created a special budget to refurbish stadiums, organize concerts and plan museum exhibits. Last summer, he sent staff to the Beijing Olympics to speak with competing teams and pitch his vision: Calais, blessed with the same kind of weather as London, is a perfect place to acclimatize before the competition.
"When you go to the U.S. and say, 'I am from the Pas-de-Calais,' people have no idea what you are talking about," says the 64-year-old Mr. Dupilet. "This will put us back on the map."
Across the Channel, people aren't so sure. Since 2005, when London won the right to hold the Games, its estimated cost of hosting the Olympics has nearly tripled to $13.78 billion from $5.78 billion -- an expense largely shouldered by U.K. taxpayers. London is hoping to recoup this money by attracting as many tourists as possible. Other English cities, such as Manchester and Birmingham, are also banking on high visitor numbers.
"London would rather lose money to other parts of the U.K. than see it go overseas," says Ken Kelling, spokesman for Visit London, a tourist organization in the capital. "I doubt they [Calais] can compete."
"Who wants to go to Birmingham?" retorts Mr. Dupilet. "In Pas-de-Calais the French lifestyle is better. And as for the food over there, well, forget it."
Pas-de-Calais is in need of some rebranding. The department was once a prosperous mining region with healthy lace-making and fishing industries. But the economy has floundered over the past 30 years, as mines closed and the lace industry was undercut by cheaper competitors. As Pas-de-Calais' industry tanked, it became stereotyped as a backwater visited by British day-trippers looking to take advantage of France's lower taxes on alcohol.
Conseil General du Pas-de-Calais
Mr. Dupilet says he knew Pas-de-Calais' big break had come when, in 2005, he listened to radio reports of crowds in London cheering their capital's success in hosting the Olympics. He assigned three members of his staff full time to the project. In the summer of 2008 his "Mission 2012" team traveled to Beijing to meet with various Olympic committees and spread the word about Calais.
Their pitch was straightforward: In addition to being a good place to warm up before the Games, Calais is cheap. Hotels are 30% less expensive than in London, making the French city an attractive venue for people from more budget-conscious countries.
To lure prospective athletes, the Pas-de-Calais department is pumping €20 million ($25 million) into building and renovating 20 training facilities, including a new bike-racing velodrome and a wrestling hall. Mr. Dupilet says he plans to borrow €20 million more if needed.
The canoeing teams from Senegal and Uzbekistan have signed up for a pre-Games training camp, and the Algerian boxing and Egyptian volleyball squads are interested in staying in or near Calais, says Stéphane Bourgeois, head of the Mission 2012 team.
Local businesses are hopeful. Bernard Beauvalot, president of hotel association Logis du Pas-de-Calais, says England's old enemies will prove willing customers. He envisages Irish and Scots heading over in droves, "and why not the Argentinians?"
In preparation for a flood of visitors, the local tourist office is distributing pamphlets to hoteliers with tips on welcoming tourists from exotic countries. Included in the warnings: Americans need water coolers, and Britons don't like rare meat.
The tourist board isn't stopping there. Negotiations are under way with Channel tunnel operator Groupe Eurotunnel SA to set up a shuttle train service between London and Calais. There are already plans for concerts and Impressionist exhibitions. Calais' red-brick cathedral, where former French President Charles de Gaulle was married, is being renovated in time for 2012. A branch of Paris' Louvre Museum is scheduled to open that year.
Residents are excited at the prospect. Pas-de-Calais has been invaded periodically by the English and the Germans. Some of the area's cities were demolished in the two World Wars. The Olympics are "like a torch" uniting people and giving a sense of identity, says Diana Hounslow, head of the regional tourist board.
A spokesman for Locog, the committee organizing the London Olympics, said last month that he hadn't heard of Pas-de-Calais' Games-related plans. Mr. Dupilet says that thus far he's been careful not to advertise too much, lest Calais attract unnecessary attention -- and perhaps more competition. The Frenchman says his goal isn't to steal London's thunder. "I am an Anglophile," smiles Mr. Dupilet. "We just want to help out."