Although devastating wildfires rage each year around the Mediterranean, heat waves bring temperatures above 40°C and droughts are commonplace, southern European countries such as Spain, Greece and Italy are once again seeing record numbers of tourists this summer.
“As of now, there is no change in travel behavior because of climate change,” says tourism professor Stefan Gössling, who researches sustainability and climate change at Linnaeus University in Kalmar, Sweden.
Mediterranean countries are still popular
Italy is expected to see a record number of tourists this year. In Spain, hotel bookings are at maximum capacity, just like most summers. According to the German Travel Association (DRV), Mediterranean countries are also among the most popular travel destinations with Germans this year. And the latest forecast by the European Travel Commission (ETC) found that France, Italy and Spain remain the most sought-after travel destinations for Europeans.
“Most travelers have a short-term memory,” says Professor Ulrich Reinhardt, scientific director of the Foundation for Future Studies in Hamburg, Germany.
Sunny beaches, warm weather, friendly locals and opportunities to explore local culture remain very attractive, despite the risk of extreme weather events, he says. “Therefore, many vacationers will still want to spend their holidays in such regions.”
Still, the impact of climate change on tourism in this part of the world will continue to grow, experts say.
Southern Europe becomes less attractive
“There will be gradual changes [in tourism trends],” says Gössling. Traveling during the low season will certainly become more popular in Spain, Italy and Greece in the future.
The authors of the recently published ETC study conclude that southern regions are facing a “significant decline in tourism demand.” Southern Europe’s appeal as a tourist region will decline in the summer, they say. Northern and central Europe, on the other hand, could benefit from climate change and attract ever more tourists.
Futurologist Ulrich Reinhardt agrees. Northern destinations have already experienced a surge in popularity in recent years. “However, in 20 or 50 years, tourists will not spend their summer vacations exclusively in Scandinavia,” he predicts. “Not only because these countries are not geared toward mass tourism — they also don’t want it.”
Destinations around the North Sea and Baltic Sea, however, will likely become new hotspots for Western European tourists. “In Europe, I expect a renaissance of Alpine tourism and increasing popularity of eastern European areas,” he predicts.
Mountains instead of Mallorca
Reinhardt also thinks some of the popular tourism destinations in Spain, for example, will be less trendy in the future.
“In 20 years, more vacationers will be spending their holidays in the mountains than at Ballermann,” he says, referring to the popular beach on the Spanish island of Mallorca. That means sought-after city break destinations will be places like Reykjavik, Tallinn and Copenhagen, rather than Athens, Venice or Barcelona.
According to tourism researcher Stefan Gössling, countries in southern Europe must strategically adapt to climate change-related challenges. But such changes are still a long way off. Southern European countries should also change their travel offers, he says: “There has long been too much focus on sun and sea tourism in Mediterranean countries.”
But the topic does not yet seem to be at the top of the agenda in Spain. In the latest industry report from the Spanish tourism association Exceltur, for example, there is no mention whatsoever of climate change. Many hotels are reacting by jacking up the air conditioning to deal with the heat, but that doesn’t solve the problem at all, says Reinhardt. Major efforts are needed, for example, to protect against extreme weather events such as flooding, to set up early warning systems, and to improve water supply, he adds.
First steps toward change
“Progress is slower than it needs to be,” agrees Professor Jorge Olcina, a geographer and climate change expert at the university in Alicante, southern Spain. “But at least the first steps are being taken.” Spain, for example, has had a climate change law since 2021, he says, and several cities and regions have drawn up plans to adapt to changing conditions.
Benidorm, a tourism stronghold on the Costa Blanca, aims to promote the low season more intensively. This is in part because rising temperatures have presented a challenge to summer tourism. But this high season, Benidorm is still very popular. The local hoteliers’ association expects a 90% occupancy rate for August.