Written by Monika Kiss.
Cancelled and possibly reintroduced coronavirus-related travel restrictions, increasing fuel prices, striking personnel at the airports and the shadow of the war on Ukraine – despite an encouraging increase in terms of travellers, this summer might be challenging for the tourism sector.
Before the Covid‑19 pandemic, the tourism sector has been a major driver for jobs and growth in the European Union, and experienced almost uninterrupted growth for decades. In 2019, the tourism industry employed more than 12.5 million people, accounting for around 10 % of total EU employment.
The impact of the travel restrictions related to the Covid‑19 pandemic (such as cancellation of flights and hotel reservations, mandatory testing, or quarantine measures), changed these figures in an unprecedented way. According to Eurostat statistics, the first lockdown in spring 2020 set tourism almost to zero. A partial recovery followed in summer 2020, driven mainly by domestic demand, with many people deciding to opt for ‘staycations’ in their home countries. At EU-level, the number of accommodation nights for EU tourists had dropped by 61 % from April 2020 to March 2021. Malta (80 %), Spain (78 %) and Greece (74 %) recorded the biggest falls.
The aviation sector suffered the loss of 2 703 million passengers in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Timely and coordinated policy efforts at both EU and national level – for instance, the mutual recognition of vaccinations, or the introduction of the EU Digital Covid Certificate, accepted in all Member States – helped to diminish these impacts and to allow people to travel, even if less than before. Support for employers and employees, such as the SURE Instrument, short-time work schemes, or the REACT-EU package and the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative helped to cushion the impact of job losses and economic downturn.
In the first quarter of 2022, a significant increase was observed in tourism, compared to the same period of the previous year: domestic accommodation arrivals more than doubled, and international accommodation arrivals increased six-fold. Air traffic in May 2022 was up 83.1 % compared to May 2021, according to International Air Transport Association (IATA) data, and is now at 68.7 % of pre-pandemic levels. There is still a way to go: at a meeting of the Committee on Transport and Tourism on 12 July 2022, European Commission representative Filip Cornelis noted that figures are expected to reach 2019 levels by the end of 2024.
A number of issues continue to threaten this generally encouraging increase in the tourism and aviation sectors, however.
Russia’s war on Ukraine affects the tourism industry in different ways. One of its impacts is the loss of Russian and Ukrainian tourists. According to estimates, the two counties accounted for 75 million tourism departures in 2019, which equals 5 % of the global total. In addition, there is also less ‘traveller confidence’ among EU nationals, mainly concerning trips to the countries neighbouring Ukraine. Furthermore, the restrictions imposed by the EU and by Russia on airlines and on the use of airspace are leading to cancelled flights or longer routes in air transport. In addition, higher fuel costs caused by the war (80 % higher jet fuel prices than a year ago), create additional losses for air companies and might lead to higher prices for customers. Increased food, energy and water prices due to the war and related sanctions will unavoidably affect hotels and restaurants and could also lead to higher costs for customers.
The growing willingness to travel after the lifted Covid‑19 restrictions leads to another problem for the catering and transport sector. Due to the closure of transport facilities, hotels and restaurants during lockdowns, a high share of staff were made redundant. For instance, in the aviation sector, 191 000 European aviation workers lost their jobs. The rapidly increasing demand has resulted in labour shortages, as many of these workers cannot be rehired and there is no immediate possibility to hire a new workforce (for example, to carry out ground handling and security tasks, up to 10 weeks training is mandatory). The resulting higher workload for the remaining airport workers, coupled with precarious working conditions, such as ‘zero hour’ or seasonal work contracts, or the lack of wage adaptations compared to rising costs of living, has led to repeated strikes by ground handling workers, joined by pilots and cabin crew. This leads to flight disruption, cancellations and infringements of consumer rights.
Another threat to increasing tourism figures is the possibility of a new rise in Covid‑19 cases. According to World Health Organization data, during the week of 4‑10 July 2022, the number of weekly cases increased for the fifth consecutive week, after a declining trend since the last peak in March 2022. In Europe, over 2.8 million new cases were reported, which is a 4 % increase compared to the previous week. Cyprus has already reintroduced facemasks and other Member States, such as Spain might follow.
The European Commission, together with EU Member State governments and industry stakeholders, is looking for solutions to remedy this situation. Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean held several meetings with stakeholders to identify the root causes of travel disruption and seek common solutions. The Commission has compiled best practices on better coordination and exchange of information, which stakeholders are expected to implement. Passengers have to be informed of travel disruption, expected waiting times and their rights when their travel plans are interrupted.
On 12 July 2022, the European Commission proposed to allow the airline slot regime to respond more flexibly to unexpected developments in the near future. The Commission proposes to return to a higher slot use rate (80 % of the 2019 figures as of 30 October 2022) reflecting the demand, but at the same time, to prolong the possibility to make use of the ‘justified non-use of slots’ (JNUS) tool created during the pandemic. Concerning working conditions in the tourism sector, the adoption of a directive on fair minimum wages, planned for the third quarter of 2022, might lead to improvements. The ongoing revision of the Directive on Air Passenger Rights should lead to better protection of air passenger’s interests when travel is disrupted. In the meantime, the Commission has adopted interpretative guidelines to provide guidance to citizens and airlines on the current state of the law.