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As extreme weather changes tourism, travel industry plays catch-up

Wildfires in Greece have forced evacuations of holiday-goers and the heat has driven tourists on the Italian island of Sardinia indoors

An aircraft drops water over a wildfire in Vati on the Aegean Sea island of Rhodes in southeastern Greece.
An aircraft drops water over a wildfire in Vati on the Aegean Sea island of Rhodes in southeastern Greece. (AP)

An idyllic summer vacation turned into a nightmare after thousands of people were evacuated from Greek islands beset by wildfires — the latest reminder that Europe’s tourism industry needs to confront the realities of climate change and adapt fast.

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Summers have been getting more intense in southern Europe, and the blazes in Greece are a grim repeat of deadly fires that devastated the country in 2021. Unbearable heat this year has forced authorities to shut the Acropolis and driven tourists on the Italian island of Sardinia indoors. And that’s with just 1.2C of global warming from pre-industrial levels. Scientists say it’s going to get worse even if we contain the temperature rise to the Paris Agreement’s goal of 2C.

Climate change is set to make the tourist-friendly weather in some places unrecognizable. A 2019 study predicted that Madrid’s climate in 2050 will resemble the north African city of Marrakesh; London will be more like Barcelona and Stockholm like Budapest. This would be a tectonic shift for Europe’s travel and tourism industry, which contributed €1.9 trillion ($2.1 trillion) to the regional economy last year, and remap travel patterns in a way that will likely deal a blow to some countries in southern Europe.

The industry may not have fully factored that in yet. “There’s still quite a big part of the industry that’s literally just waking up,” said Catharina Martinez-Pardo, a partner at Boston Consulting Group who specializes in climate and sustainability in hospitality. “I don’t think they’re really ready.”

About 19,000 people had to be evacuated over the weekend from the Greek island of Rhodes as wildfires continued to blaze and flights were canceled. For the past few days, beachgoers had been watching as firefighter planes made water landings to pick up supplies — an eerie backdrop to people swimming or doing water sports.

Over the weekend, many tourists who had gone on daytrips couldn’t return to their hotels to collect their passports and belongings. A shelter in Faliraki accommodated at least 100 people, some of them still in their swimsuits. That included providing a buffet of fresh watermelon and honeydew for wary travelers.

Elsewhere, tourists housed in sports facilities, conference centers, hotels and public buildings were given food and water, according to Greece’s civil protection ministry. A special area has been set up in the Rhodes airport with fold-up beds for families with children and those with special needs, the ministry said.

Still, the region’s tourism industry is unlikely to make long-term commercial decisions based on immediate events this summer, says Tom Jenkins, chief executive officer of the European Tourism Association. “Will the industry have to change in advance of customer behavior?” he said. “I think it would be very odd for them to do so.”

TUI, a German travel company, and airline EasyJet both said last week that they saw little reaction to the extreme heat. But the temperatures are already having an impact on travelers elsewhere. In the US last week, passengers were left sitting in a Delta flight for hours in the sweltering heat as they waited to take off from Las Vegas to Atlanta.

Even though Europe’s tourism sector is estimated to grow at an average annual rate of 3.3% up to 2032, the frequency of extreme events in southern Europe may push travelers to destinations in the northern part of the continent. Heat waves may “reduce southern Europe’s attractiveness as a tourist destination in the longer term or at the very least reduce demand in summer,” Moody’s Investors Service said Monday.

Some researchers have modeled extreme scenarios to gauge the fallout for different parts of the economy. In a world that reached 4C of warming, alongside ecological breakdown would be a steep drop of more than 9% in tourism to the Greek Ionian islands, according to a European Commission report published this year. The same scenario would see an increase in tourism by about 16% to western Wales.

That shift will be a blow for countries which rely heavily on visitors for economic growth. The tourism industry contributed 14.9% to Greece’s gross domestic product in 2021 while adding as much as 9.1% and 8.5% for Italy and Spain respectively.

Temperatures reached 46C on the Italian island of Sardinia last week, leading to empty streets during what’s usually prime tourism season. Mobile phones stopped working in temperatures that closed in on a record. An 84-year-old man died in his car after pulling over in Sardinia this month, days after another man half his age collapsed while painting street markings for a pedestrian crossing in Milan.

A minor diplomatic incident this month highlighted the high stakes for the industry. While visiting Italy, German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach tweeted about the extreme heat and how some holiday destinations in southern Europe “will have no future in the long term.” The post triggered strong pushback from Italian Tourism Minister Daniela Santanchè, who pointed out that global warming is impacting the whole planet and not just any one country.

Some European destinations will “suffer” in the summer months when there’s “nowhere to escape the heat,” Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission said last week. For travelers, this may mean going north instead of south in Europe, or traveling in the spring or winter instead of summer, he said. People will probably book their holidays at short notice, based on what the weather is expected to be like at their destinations.

One of Santander’s forecasts is already bearing out. Searches for northern European destinations from people living in southern Europe surged in the last week compared to the same days last month, with Ireland up by more than 1,000%, according to travel booking website eDreams Odigeo.

“The latest data shows that high temperatures are leading southern Europeans to rethink their holiday destinations in search of cooler temperatures,” eDreams’s Chief Air Supplier Officer Pablo Caspers said. “Weather conditions are likely to gain more weight in travelers’ choices in the future.”

As of Monday, 162 fires were reported across Greece and another 2,466 tourists and residents were evacuated in northern Corfu the night before, including 59 rescued from a beach by the coast guard. As forest fires threaten five more villages on Rhodes, a further evacuation order has been issued.

“The climate crisis is already here,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told lawmakers in parliament on Monday. “We are at war.”

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