Europe is opening its doors to tourists again
Rising middle class and improved air connectivity are contributing to the rise in visitor numbers
By Mariella Radaelli & Jon Van Housen (Euroscope)
Published: Sun 13 Aug 2017, 9:36 PM
Last updated: Sun 13 Aug 2017, 11:40 PM
"I met a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered myself," wrote American poet James Baldwin.
As one of the great cradles of civilisation, the continent has long cast its charm on visitors. Cheap air travel might have opened doors to far-flung places, but Europe's architecture, history, food and natural beauty are among the most compelling features that invite people to its shores.
Some 615 million tourists visited the continent last year and numbers continue to rise. According to the World Tourism Organisation, international arrivals in Europe rose 6 per cent in the first six months of 2017 as confidence returned in destinations hit by nefarious incidents.
Visits to both southern Mediterranean Europe and the north surged 9 per cent in the first half, while western, central and eastern Europe rebounded from flat growth in 2016 to a 4 per cent increase in the first six months this year.
Like the continent itself, factors driving tourism are complex.
"First, its location amid a very large and affluent market," says Richard Butler, emeritus professor of tourism at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. "Second is its heritage, historic buildings, war sites, capitals, cities such as Venice and art collections, etc."
"Third is its geography - the climate, the warm south, the Alpine areas and a wide variety of scenery and features within a relatively short distance," says Butler. "Finally, easy access by budget airlines, good rail service and motorways, and easy access for long haul flights from America, the Gulf, etc."
Last year about 27 million US citizens chose Europe for their vacation "particularly Mediterranean and central European destinations such as Italy and Croatia", notes a report by Premier Tax-Free shopping. "The same can be said of Canada - from a total of 34 million Canadian outbound travellers, five million set their sights particularly on Mediterranean Europe."
According to Butler, Americans look for "experiences, heritage, personal links to places and people, along with sites featured in movies and television series".
Mediterranean Europe is chosen by "mostly northern Europeans - the British, Scandinavians, in particular, also Belgians, Dutch, and increasingly Russians and citizens of Baltic states," says Butler.
Destinations that resist changes in trends are "St. Moritz, Davos, and the Alps as a whole, a few localised areas on the French Mediterranean and the Cinque Terre in Italy. The great capitals remain major attractions but that will change inevitably. Venice, Italy, remains the single greatest attraction but is subject to enormous pressure and some change," he says.
Residents in Venice are getting exasperated as they city is getting more and more popular among tourists. They marched through a throng of visitors last month to protest against the increasing number of tourists, insisting the uniqueness of Venice needs to be preserved.
Italy has the most Unesco sites and art cities in the world, but a huge part of its appeal is the geography and climate.
"With 7,400 kilometres of coastline, the peninsula boasts the most beaches in Europe as well as 27 marine parks," writes CNN travel writer Jordan Burchette.
"Italy is also blessed with more than 400 ancient spa sites. Summer water temperatures peak in many places at just below 30 degree Celsius, compared with the mid-20s in France and Portugal. It's like swimming in tropical waters minus the sharks and trinket hawkers."
According to a study by the Bank of Italy, foreign tourism in Italy will likely set a new record in revenues this year, raking in nearly ?40 billion compared to ?36.7 billion in 2016.
Other destinations that remain classics on the European tour are France, Spain and the UK.
But some other European countries are increasingly becoming popular. According to a recent study by the European Travel Commission, visits to Iceland have been increasing for seven consecutive years, though at relatively low volumes.
Serbia, Croatia and Portugal, all up 15 per cent, have fared well, helped by strong marketing efforts and improved air connectivity.
Small countries that also enjoyed substantial increases include Montenegro (up 25 per cent), Malta (23 per cent) and Cyprus (18 per cent).
But are there real effects of terrorism on tourism in Europe?
"A decline in the appeal of Turkey is resulting in greater demand in Spain, France and Greece as Mediterranean alternatives," says Butler. "Otherwise no appreciable effect to a measurable degree."
Is the map of tourism transforming? "Not a lot and not on a high speed," says Butler.
The most unexplored locales are "many parts of Scandinavia, parts of east-central Europe, the Danube countries, the islands of Sardinia, Italy and Corsica, northern Greece and parts of the Balkans. Whether these places could or would want to accommodate large numbers of tourists is another matter," he says.
Visitors from the Gulf countries enjoy "shopping in Paris, London, Milan, sizing up property purchases, and frequenting elite hotels and restaurants", says Butler.
Travel from China and Japan increased 14 per cent and 5 per cent respectively in 2017. "Growth is also driven by long-haul source markets. Cheap oil prices, favourable currency exchange rates, rising middle class and improved air connectivity are all contributing significantly to the surge in outbound travel to Europe," said Eduardo Santander, Executive Director of the European Travel Commission.
Mariella Radaelli and Jon Van Housen are editors at the Luminosity Italia news agency in Milan