In August, Sebastian Ebel, the Chief Executive Officer of Tui, a large travel agency, said that his company had incurred an expense of EUR 25 million in evacuating 8,000 of its customers from the Greek island of Rhodes that suffered one of its worst wildfires in the peak travel season, affecting tens of thousands of tourists from all across the world, notably Europe.
Over the past few years, extreme weather events, especially flash floods, cyclones as well as heatwaves and forest fires have increasingly impacted tourists, who have had to cut short their vacations or at least be evacuated. However, this is the first time that a company, that too a tour operator, has actually put a value to the cost incurred in such an evacuation.
And with each passing summer, these incidents seem to be becoming ever more frequent and more dangerous. In August, for instance, hundreds of vacationers in resort island of Maui in American State of Hawaii had to be evacuated as parts of the island were razed to the ground by wildfires that burnt through large parts of western Maui. Days later, the focus seemed to have shifted to the Yellowknife province in Canada where another series of wildfires is leading to large-scale evacuation.
If it is not wildfire, tourists have been caught up in other kinds of problems, like sizzling temperatures of over 50°C, severe shortages of water, dried up lakes or rivers on which they were meant to do water sports or just swim and not to mention the missing snow from many peaks across this part of the world.
Spike in global warming and average temperatures around the world as well as frequent occurrence of extreme weather events, ranging from droughts to flashfloods are playing havoc with the tourism industry all over the world, but more so in the western nations.
For well over half a century, the tourism industry across Western Hemisphere has eagerly awaited summers, typically July and August, as its busiest season of the year, as hordes of tourists, mainly families with children, descended upon tourism destinations for spending their annual vacations, staying for days, if not weeks, at the place, be it a by the beach or up in the mountains. For most tourists, at least from colder climates, the idea was to catch a bit of the sun and laze around.
However, that image of a vacation has been put paid to. Heatwaves have increasingly meant that the tourists and residents spend their time sweating indoors, rather than enjoying their time in activities like strolling by the beach, taking a dip in the oceans or simply walking around the cities, shopping.
All these factors are playing havoc not only with the tourists’ plans but also with the tourism industry, which is increasingly bearing the financial brunt of these evacuations, just as Tui had to bear. Certainly, the amount was small enough for the company to absorb it and report a hefty profit as tourism industry continues to grow rapidly in the postpandemic world. But it does portend the future. Travellers, travel firms, hotels, airlines and every other tourism player like theme-park operators or activities providers will need to start planning for a world in which these interruptions or disruptions become more frequent, more severe and more prolonged.
“The weather has historically been one of the main reasons for choosing a destination. So if travellers are dissatisfied with this factor, they may decide not to return or at least not come back next year during the same season. At Mabrian we have an index, called the Climate Perception Index, to calculate the effect of the weather on tourist destinations and how satisfied tourists are with the weather during their stay,’’ Carlos Cendra, CMO at Mabrian, a leading company in travel intelligence and big data, tells India Outbound.
“The index uses different advanced artificial intelligence techniques based on the use of data from millions of visitor interactions on social networks that are captured daily. After analysing the impact of last summer’s heat waves from this index, we could see that France, Greece and Spain were the most effected destinations in terms of loss of climate satisfaction. This drop in satisfaction supposes a high possibility that these visitors will not return. Now there is so much demand that the destinations are not going to be greatly affected, but in the medium and long term it is very possible that it will begin to be noticed,’’ warns Cendra.
The options to deal with the situation are not dime a dozen. Most travellers would remain bound to the July-August break as the governments are unlikely to turn the school calendars upside down and move the annual break to another period in the year, to allow the students and their families to be able to enjoy a real vacation.
The solution for these families may then lie in seeking out different destinations, preferably those in cooler climes such as northern European countries or even the Nordic nations, or tropical nations where it is hot and humid almost round the year and where they would be protected at least from wildfires.
“If this trend towards a warmer climate continues over time, based on current scientific evidence about climate change, the tourism industry will surely find itself having to rethink summer vacations as we know them. That will happen because travellers may be more interested in cooler places during the summer months. Or, perhaps, they could change the season in which they visit typical beach destinations, arriving before or after the summer season,’’ agrees Cendra.
He adds that a combination of mitigation and adaptation strategies would be needed to deal with the impact of climate change on tourism. ‘‘Analysing climate satisfaction and its effects on the global experience of visitors helps the tourism industry to be more resilient and make better decisions in the future. You can analyse the climate perception in a destination and the effects of phenomena such as heat waves, intense rains, snowfall, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes. Thus, markets and seasons less sensitive to this adverse weather can be identified and communication and marketing actions can be segmented for each of the markets. Fluctuations in demand associated with this variation in weather can also be anticipated,’’ says Cendra.
“Destinations hit by heat waves may see demand more seasonally adjusted and may direct their efforts to tourists who are interested in visiting the destination out of season. Another change or opportunity is that the activities in the destination may be affected, arousing more interest in plans or activities that start when the sun is going down or at night. That in turn could mean that guided tours, bars or restaurants have to modify their hours,’’ he adds.
Spain: Diversity & adaptation
One of the countries that is increasingly exposed to heatwaves, at least along its southern coast, is Spain, where temperatures in some parts exceed 40°C in peak summer period. Spanish Tourism officials admit that the country is impacted, like every other Mediterranean nation, but the impact is limited due to several factors, including the country’s immense geographical and natural diversity as well as adaptation by the tourism players in the areas impacted by the heatwaves.
“It is true that many countries including Spain are affected by the climate change. However, we must understand that entire planet is currently going through some unprecedented times due to the same. Not just Spain, but the entire Mediterranean region is suffering from heatwaves during the summer with increased risks of natural disasters. But various governments, including Spain, are taking steps to cope with the situation effectively. Measures such as better water management and capacity control of destinations help in tourism progress in a sustainable way,’’ Elisa Robles Fraga, Director, Tourism Office of Spain in Mumbai, tells India Outbound.
‘‘Nevertheless, the heatwaves by themselves don’t pull away the interest in cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia or Seville. Their cultural and gastronomical offers, among other things, provide the tourists with perfect havens to avoid the hottest time slots of the day. The summer nights continue to be vibrant and full of life!’’ she adds.
One of the key advantages of a relatively large country like Spain is of course the diversity of its nature, which means even in peak summer, a mild and pleasant weather pervades in many parts of the country, notably the Pyrenees mountains as well as the northern regions of the country. Robles Fraga says that these cooler areas are experiencing a greater demand from tourists.
‘‘On the other hand, Spain is also experiencing an increase of tourism in the northern regions, also known as the Green Spain. It includes regions like Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and País Vasco. Their mild weather, with temperatures around 20-25ºC, in July and August as well as the lavish green hiking routes are indeed very attractive for tourists,’’ she adds.
Robles Fraga says that she does not foresee a dramatic impact on tourism patterns, despite the climate change and the heatwaves. ‘‘We don’t think it will have that extreme of an impact on travel seasons. The attractiveness of a destination depends on many other attributes too, and climate is just one of them. The activities, high quality infrastructure, security, gastronomy, warmth of the people are all equally important. Moreover, like mentioned earlier, the corrective measures are continuously being taken to ensure that our way of life in different seasons continues being so in the foreseeable future,’’ she says.
Moreover, individually or collectively, tourism stakeholders as well as local, regional or national governments are taking measures to help minimise the impact of the rising temperatures. ‘‘Stakeholders, just like travellers, can take short-term measures to prevent a high impact of heat waves. For example, hotels in some destinations where traditionally air conditioning wasn’t required, are adopting ACs in order to make visitors’ stay more comfortable. Various facilities and venues are also slowly but steadily switching to renewable energies, like installation of solar panels, to make the transition more energy efficient. Moreover, the destinations also have good crisis management measures like warning systems in place for natural disasters like wildfires. Yes, there could be some implication on overall prices in the short-term, but I feel that is an overall trend that is being observed with destinations all over the world. Indeed, heat waves are one of the consequences of climate change, a problem that we all should face with a comprehensive international strategy,’’ says Robles Fraga.
Portugal: Not impacted, but preparing for climate change
Though in the past it has been hit by forest fires, this year, Spain’s neighbour Portugal has not been impacted. Claudia Matias, Director, Turismo de Portugal in New Delhi says that Portugal’s geographical location does protect it from widespread impact of the heatwaves that sweep other Mediterranean nations.
“Portugal is fortunately “saved” from the current heat wave that hits southern Europe, but the temperature in the summer did rise by up to 3°C on an average. Being by the Atlantic coast it allows the country to have a less severe impact. The tourist accommodation sector registered 2.9 million guests and 7.4 million overnight stays in June 2023, corresponding to increases of 7.1 pc and of 3.7 pc, respectively. Compared to June of 2019, there was an increase of 4.3 pc and of 3.8 pc, respectively. From January to June 2023 total revenue reached EUR 2.5 billion, a growth of 31.8 pc, while accommodation revenue, which amounted to EUR 1.8 billion, grew 34 pc,’’ Matias tells India Outbound.
Indeed, Portugal is a destination favoured by tourists for its sun and sea, albeit in a different period of the year. “Portugal is a destination with a mild climate throughout the year. Mild winter and summers. We usually see a strong demand during winter time specially to the south region of the country to Algarve, from northern European countries. Madeira island is another highlight, with its tropical climate and increasing visitor numbers during all seasons,’’ she adds.
Pivotal role for governments
It may be rather early days to talk of winter becoming the new summer for peak travel and certainly, not all parts will be impacted to the same degree or at the same period of the year. Yet, it will take years if not decades for the tourism industry and the travellers to adapt to the new conditions and hence the sooner they begin, the better placed they would be. In this preparatory stage, the governments have a key role to play – to educate and inform both the travel industry and the travellers as well as assist the industry with solutions and if necessary the funds or tax breaks to switch to the new technologies needed.
‘‘When it comes to climate change, public policies for current consequences as well as future environmental strategies, local tourism boards have a great responsibility with their policies, for example, in terms of natural resource management or authorisations or controls to certain tourism activities. Spanish Tourism Ministry is also working hard towards a balanced sustainable strategy. Tourism is an important contributor to our GDP, and it is a challenge to balance the economic and ecological side for a long-term sustainable strategy. We continue working hard towards making Spain a high-quality and sustainable destination. We encourage travellers to use public transport, prioritise train travel over the flights whenever possible, offer financing tools to encourage energy efficiency, as well as promote the local and seasonal products in terms of gastronomy. For example, in the town of Benidorm, a climate change plan focused on tourism was approved in 2021. One of the measures it included was the analysis and implementation of a ‘green belt’ in the city to fight against the high temperatures,’’ recounts Robles Fraga.
‘‘It is important that the sector has a growing capacity to adapt to the risks that arise, to reduce the impact and prepare ahead. Hence, a set of measures to be carried out to mitigate the impacts resulting from climate change will be crucial, in order to keep attracting international flows based in innovative practices related to sustainability and the environment,’’ adds Matias.
The travel firms as well as insurance companies, too, need to prepare for climate change, by enhancing or introducing elements in their packages to be able to deal with climate emergencies such as the one faced by the clients of Tui in Greece. Ebel says that Tui plans to expand its range of destinations to mitigate potential risks in the future. He adds that Tui is considering introducing new insurance options for tourists travelling to areas affected by disruptions linked to climate change.
In view of the growing uncertainty, some traffic of travellers, who had migrated from booking through tour operators to managing their travels on their own, may indeed return to the traditional route, as booking package tours through operators offers significant advantages and comprehensive services, particularly in extraordinary situations.