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A More Durable Tourism Model: Building Back Better in Europe

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Record heat levels and wildfires across much of Southern Europe have been hugely disruptive to the peak tourism summer months on which many Mediterranean destinations depend. Thousands of tourists were evacuated from Rhodes, Greece in July as travel operators scrambled to navigate flight changes, re-bookings and trip cancellations. This disruption is another reminder of the impact that climate change and extreme weather events can have on the industry. In 2022, inbound tourism spending was worth USD535 billion across Western Europe. There is a lot at stake, and increasingly, consumers are experiencing these often dangerous effects first hand.

There is a clear and significant economic impact to natural disasters, according to Euromonitor International’s Travel Forecast Model. An extreme natural disaster scenario (the highest severity level offered by the model) this year in Greece would result in a loss of USD655 million in inbound tourism spending and take more than two years to fully recover. This kind of loss can be devastating to the economies of destinations dependent on tourism, both in immediate loss of tourism revenue, but also from secondary effects such as job losses, damage to assets, cancelled bookings, and the general perception of safety.Durable tourism chart1.svg

The climate crisis and recent weather events are some of the most urgent drivers of the idea of building back better in tourism. However, while the conversation often revolves around environmental sustainability, building back better goes wider to imagine a more durable travel system that is also more economically fair, more socially responsible, and more resilient to crises.

Despite challenges, Europe ranks high in sustainable tourism

Euromonitor International’s Sustainable Travel Index offers unique sustainability KPIs for destinations, and one pillar of the index, sustainable tourism demand, offers a unique view into areas like resilience, overtourism, and value creation.

At 1.1 trips per capita (meaning more inbound visitors than residents), Western Europe was by far the most popular destination in 2019 compared to any world region (though second to Australasia in inbound spend). However, Europe has been challenged by mass tourism effects, a particularly strong pandemic response, and now, extreme weather events.

For these reasons, while European countries consistently top the index overall, due in part to the EU Green Deal pushing member states to reach Paris Agreement targets, they tend to rank much lower in the sustainable demand pillar. Nevertheless, the index also shows that many European destinations have made post-pandemic improvements. Since introducing a Minister of Climate Crisis in 2021, for example, Greece improved by five positions in the sustainable tourism demand pillar. Durable tourism chart2.svg

Resilience: Sweden and the flight-shaming effect

One positive aspect of the pandemic-era pause on cross-border tourism was the positive impact it had on domestic tourism. In most countries listed on the index, there was a distinct jump in domestic trips per capita in 2020, and so far, in many countries, that jump has settled into something higher than it was in 2019, meaning the domestic tourism boom has largely stuck.

Domestic tourism is inherently a more sustainable option than long-haul trips to faraway destinations, not only because of the emissions created from flying, but also because local visitors do not typically collect in the most touristic locations like inbound tourists do. This creates a more equitable spread of tourism spending, benefiting a wider market of players and a healthier tourism economy due to visitor and spending dispersal.

Sweden, however, is one of the few examples of countries that have been gradually increasing domestic trips since 2015, meaning the pandemic had no clear impact on that shift. Domestic trips per capita increased by 10% between 2015 and 2022, in part driven by a growing awareness of sustainability. Flight shaming, with origins in Sweden, Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement, has played a part in changing the narrative around the tourism impact on climate more widely across Europe. Sustainability sentiment tends to favour more local and regional trips.Durable tourism chart3.svg

Value creation: Croatia's post-pandemic reversal

Another key indicator is value creation, or the idea that inbound tourists are staying longer (and spending more) and roam more meaningfully in a destination. Before the pandemic, overtourism grew rapidly across Europe, fuelled in large part by packaged holiday cruises and the rapid availability of low cost flights. Low cost carriers, for example, gained significant market share (from 42% of total passenger volumes across Western Europe in 2015, to 49% in 2022). The option to fly in and out of a destination for the weekend, combined with targeted advertising from DMOs and airlines, became irresistible for budget travellers. This increased the total volume of flyers but decreased spend per trip.

This was the case for Croatia, which became an increasingly popular regional destination due to greater accessibility to travellers through low cost routes. Between 2015 and 2019, the average length of stay declined by 7% to reach 4.8 days in Croatia. Since the pandemic, however, Croatia has been working with the EU Commission to diversify its economy and decrease its dependency on mass tourism. Cities like Dubrovnik have made concerted efforts, for example, to tackle the effects of overtourism by reigning in cruise arrivals. Between 2019 and 2022, the average length of stay increased to 6.5 days, according to the index.

A pillar of the European economy

According to the European Parliament, tourism spending contributes approximately 10% of GDP across the EU, which means tourism is critical to the European economy. The pandemic pause on travel gave destinations a unique opportunity to rethink the kind of tourism they seek to attract. The collection of these efforts is helping travel build back better in Europe. This is crucial for the kind of resilience needed amid continued economic uncertainty and the likely regularity of extreme weather events, with the potential for positive ripple effects across the global travel system.

For more on sustainable travel, read our article New Travel Normal: Three Challenges of Inflation, Climate and Digitalisation or our latest report Sustainable Travel Index: Ramping Up Action for Positive Change.


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