Challenges Remain, But European Tourism On A Strong Footing

The European Travel Commission’s (ETC) latest ‘European Tourism Trends & Prospects’ report indicates that European tourism demand entered 2023 on a strong footing despite ongoing challenges, with international tourist arrivals 18% below 2019 levels.

Year-to-date data shows that almost one third of reporting destinations have surpassed 2019 levels of tourist arrivals, while one fourth are 10% below.

In arrival terms, Serbia (32%) and Türkiye (21%) outperformed other destinations, mostly due to the influx of Russian travellers taking advantage of the visa-free regime in both countries.

Similarly to Türkiye, Bulgaria also saw a strong performance (+27%), supported by its perception as a good value holiday destination in times of rising travel costs.

Despite increasing demand, flight volumes have continued to plateau, signalling that supply constraints are still stalling recovery.

Data from Eurocontrol indicates that European air traffic remained down 14.4% in January 2023 compared to January 2019. Other challenges from 2022 are expected to spill into 2023 in terms of elevated food and jet fuel prices, as well as higher operating costs for airlines and hospitality establishments.

Luís Araújo, ETC’s President, said of the report’s findings that: “It is encouraging to see healthy levels of recovery as we hurtle towards the summer peak season. However, many challenges still hinder the travel industry. From battling inflation, to dealing with the fallout from the war in Ukraine, the travel industry has its hands full at the moment. Nonetheless, we must also focus on tackling longer term challenges.”

Araújo continued: “To preserve the sector for future generations, tourism businesses, policymakers, and destinations must strengthen their efforts to encourage responsible tourism practices, minimize negative impacts on the environment and create positive impacts on the wellbeing of our populations.”

The Weight of War

A year on from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the war and its geopolitical consequences weigh on the travel industry and the recovery of some European destinations.

Travel restrictions on Russian arrivals continue to redirect travel flows to other destinations across Europe.

Türkiye, for instance, has seen a strong influx of Russian visitors, ranking as the most popular destination for this market so far this year. As one of the few destinations in Europe that does not have sanctions in place, Türkiye is garnering the benefits of a reduced selection of destinations for Russian travellers.

In contrast, the absence of Russian travel has been a factor slowing down tourism recovery in some Northern and Eastern European destinations. This has mostly been felt in Finland and the Baltic states.

Some Eastern European countries are also being impacted by perceptions that they are closer to the conflict zone than they are. Krakow, Budapest, and Riga are all cities reporting visitors showing hesitancy due to the war in Ukraine.

Britons Brave Disruptions

The most recent data suggests that two in five reporting countries have surpassed 2019 levels of British tourist arrivals. Whilst the cost-of-living crisis is not deterring Brits from travelling, it is causing price-sensitive travellers to choose more cost-effective travel alternatives.

Türkiye saw the fastest growth in British tourist arrivals, up 69% compared to 2019, helped by the declining value of the Turkish lira over major currencies, including sterling. Croatia (64%) and Montenegro (54%) also attracted sizeable numbers of British arrivals.

It is predicted that the rapid recovery of UK travel demand will continue to pressure Britain’s airports, ports and railways as they try to meet demand and minimize delays.

Indeed, over Easter, Britons were challenged by travel chaos at UK ports and airports brought on by strikes, understaffing, delays and more thorough post-Brexit border controls. Industry experts predict that summer 2023 could see a similar level of disruption to summer 2022.

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