The number of tourists in Europe has almost reached its pre-Covid-19 level this summer. Good news for professionals in the sector, even though the season hasn’t been without its challenges, including unpredictable weather and the return of an old issue – overcrowding at the most popular tourist sites.
Tourists are back. As Europe had already recovered 95% of its tourist traffic from 2019 – the last year without Covid-19-related restrictions – in the second quarter of 2023, the summer season was already looking promising. Just a few days before the end of summer, the economists’ predictions are being confirmed.
“The tourism industry has really pulled out all the stops this year,” explains Brian Garrod, a tourism marketing professor at Swansea University in the UK. “There has also been strong demand from tourists who couldn’t travel in 2021 and were still cautious in 2022. 2023 marks their big comeback.”
Forest fires and heatwaves
If this recovery is a relief after three difficult summers – tourism accounts for nearly 10% of the EU’s GDP and employs around 23 million people – the summer of 2023 still brought its fair share of challenges. Among them: unpredictable weather events.
In mid-July, an intense heatwave hit southern Europe. In Greece, temperatures soared to around 45°C for several days, leading authorities to close the famous Acropolis in Athens every afternoon. In Italy, heatwave alert levels were declared in 20 out of the country’s 27 major cities, with temperatures reaching up to 47°C in Sicily – a particularly popular destination for tourists, especially due to the filming location for the TV series “Le Lotus blanc” on the island.
In Rome, 28 emergency aid points were set up to help tourists cope with the heat. “The authorities are distributing water and are ready to intervene in case of discomfort,” explained Seema Gupta, France 24 correspondent in the Italian capital, on July 18. “A heat code has also been put in place in the emergency services of hospitals to help people suffering from heat-related symptoms.”
The worst was yet to come. At the end of July, tens of thousands of holidaymakers were evacuated from the Greek islands of Rhodes and Corfu, which were hit by massive forest fires. Rhodes, which received 2.5 million visitors in 2022, is one of the country’s main resort destinations with numerous hotels along its eastern coast. The same fate was experienced by hundreds of tourists in France, Spain, Italy, and Croatia.
Although scientists agree that these phenomena will intensify in the coming years due to climate change, tourist offices are trying to reassure visitors. “High temperatures are normal at this time of year and do not in any way compromise our tourist offer, which remains solid, high-quality, varied, and sustainable,” said Italian Minister of Culture and Tourism Daniela Santanchè. She added, “We are waiting for you in Italy.”
The return of overcrowding at tourist sites
This massive return of tourists also revives another problem: overcrowding. According to a study by vacation rental agency Holidu, Dubrovnik, Croatia, is the most overcrowded city in Europe, with 36 tourists per resident. Venice, Italy, comes in second.
In these two cities, the peak season immediately leads to increased rental rates and prices, often causing frustration among locals. France is not exempt. In Nice, in the south of France, tourists were greeted with an unusual art installation this summer: a street artist known as Too Late installed a series of “tourist traps” – human-sized mousetraps attracting visitors with the promise of an ice cream cone – to warn against the dangers of overtourism.
To reduce mass tourism on the French Riviera, I have installed tourist traps. I hope to eliminate as many pests as possible by the end of summer.
In addition, this major influx of travelers can also increase the pressure on already fragile places. In July, UNESCO called for Venice to be added to its list of World Heritage in Danger, stating that it was at risk of “irreversible” damage due to, among other factors, mass tourism.
This overcrowding also increases the risks of poor behavior. Examples abound. In Italy alone, in July, a British tourist was caught red-handed engraving his and his girlfriend’s names on the wall of the Colosseum in Rome. A few weeks later, a group of German tourists toppled a centuries-old fountain statue in Lombardy.
In response, more and more municipalities have already implemented regulatory measures. Amsterdam has banned cruise ships from its main port. Rome restricts access to the famous Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain is considering introducing a tourist tax.
France, on its part, announced in June a plan to regulate summer crowds that threaten “the environment, quality of life for residents, and visitor experience.” The goal is to identify sites vulnerable to overtourism and encourage travelers to visit them outside of the peak season, as well as to highlight off-the-beaten-path attractions.
Ultimately, climate change could paradoxically provide part of the solution. According to a study by the European Science Hub, tourists could gradually turn more toward destinations in northern Europe rather than around the Mediterranean during the summer season. “We may see more tourists turning to Nordic countries to escape the heat. But the weather there is more variable, so I don’t think we’ll see that happening right away,” says Brian Garrod. “People are very slow to change their tourist habits.”