ATHENS — A beautiful summer vacation turned into a nightmare after wildfires forced thousands to evacuate Greek islands — the latest reminder that Europe’s tourism industry must face the realities of climate change and adapt quickly.
Summers are getting more intense in southern Europe, and the fires in Greece are a grim repeat of the deadly fires that ravaged the country in 2021.
Unbearable heat in 2023 forced authorities to close the Acropolis, keeping tourists indoors on the Italian island of Sardinia. That’s 1.2 degrees Celsius of global warming from pre-industrial levels. Even if temperatures rise to the 2°C target of the Paris Agreement, scientists say it will only get worse.
Climate change has made some places unrecognizably tourist-friendly.
A 2019 study predicted that Madrid’s climate in 2050 will resemble that of the North African city of Marrakesh; London will be like Barcelona and Stockholm will be like Budapest.
It would be a tectonic shift for Europe’s travel and tourism industry, which contributed 1.9 trillion euros (S$2.8 trillion) to the regional economy by 2022, and would remap travel patterns in a way that would set back some countries in southern Europe.
Maybe the industry hasn’t fully considered it yet. “A large part of the industry is still literally waking up,” said Ms. Catharina Martinez-Pardo, a partner at Boston Consulting Group, which specializes in climate and sustainability in hospitality. “I don’t think they’re really ready.”
19,000 people were evacuated from the Greek island of Rhodes over the weekend as wildfires continued and flights were cancelled. For the past few days, beachgoers have been watching firefighting planes take in the water — an eerie backdrop to people swimming or doing water sports.
Over the weekend, many daytrip tourists were unable to return to their hotels to collect their passports and luggage.
A shelter in Faliraki housed at least 100 people, some of whom were still in their swimsuits. It also included serving weary travelers a buffet of watermelon and honeydew.
Elsewhere, food and water were provided to tourists staying in sports facilities, conference centers, hotels and public buildings, Greece’s Civil Protection Ministry said. Rhodes Airport has set up a special area with beds for families with children and people with special needs, the ministry said.
However, the region’s tourism industry is unlikely to make long-term commercial decisions based on this summer’s immediate events, said Tom Jenkins, chief executive of the European Tourism Association. “Will the industry have to change before consumer behavior?” He said. “I think it would be very strange for them to do that.”
German travel company TUI and airline easyJet said last week that they had seen little response to the extreme heat. But temperatures are already affecting travelers elsewhere. Last week in the United States, passengers sat on a Delta flight for hours in sweltering heat as they waited to take off from Las Vegas to Atlanta.
Although Europe’s tourism sector is estimated to grow at an average annual rate of 3.3 percent until 2032, the frequency of extreme events in southern Europe may push travelers to destinations in the northern part of the continent.
Heatwaves will “reduce the attractiveness of southern Europe as a tourist destination in the long term or reduce demand in the summer,” Moody’s Investors Service said on Monday.
Some researchers have devised extreme scenarios to measure the collapse of different parts of the economy.
According to a European Commission report published in 2023, tourism to the Greek Ionian Islands could plummet by more than 9 percent if 4 degrees Celsius of warming is combined with environmental degradation. In the same scenario there would be a 16 per cent increase in tourism to West Wales.
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