After the slump of the Covid-19 pandemic, the tourism industry across Europe continued to pick up speed in 2023 and 2024, drawing close to or – in some countries – even surpassing pre-pandemic levels. 

In the first quarter of 2024, there were 452.6 million overnight stays in tourist accommodations across the EU, marking a seven percent increase compared with the same quarter of 2023, according to Eurostat data released last week.

Foreign visitors accounted for approximately 45 percent of all overnight stays in the first three months of 2024, with large differences among EU countries. The biggest share of foreign visitors staying overnight at the beginning of the year was recorded in Malta (91 percent), Cyprus (87 percent), Luxembourg (82 percent) and Austria (78 percent). 

They are followed by Portugal, Croatia, Spain, Slovenia, Latvia, and Belgium. At the bottom of the ranking are Germany, Romania and Poland, with a share of foreign overnight stays of around 20 percent.

Derided as “Club Med” nations during the European debt crisis 15 years ago, the economies of Spain, Greece and Portugal are now outperforming their northern peers – thanks to a rebound in tourism. 

The three nations had to endure harsh austerity measures in the early 2010s imposed by their European Union partners, who were quick to blame their fiscal laxity and lack of competitiveness for their economic woes.

But “the situation has changed” since the Covid-19 pandemic ended, said Zsolt Darvas, an economist at Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank. “Today, those countries are growing faster than the European Union average, they are no longer seen as black sheep.”

Sunny side up: post-pandemic tourism rebounds

Tourism in the three countries reached record levels last year following the lifting of pandemic travel restrictions. They are also benefiting from the EU’s massive pandemic recovery fund, whose mix of grants and loans in exchange for structural reforms largely goes to southern countries.

Spain’s gross domestic product expanded by 2.5 percent last year, while Portugal’s economy grew by 2.3 percent and Greece by two percent. That compares to growth of 0.4 percent for the entire 27-member EU, which was weighed down by Germany’s 0.3-percent-contraction, making it the world’s worst-performing major economy in 2023.

Italy’s tourism sector saw its highest ever number of tourists in 2023, registering a 13.4-percent increase in arrivals and a 9.5-percent increase in overnight stays compared to 2022, according to the latest figures from the Italian statistics authority Istat and the Ministry of Tourism. The report said these levels were comfortably above the pre-pandemic ones of 2019, the year before the pandemic began.

Slovenian tourism posted record results last year despite the devastating floods that hit the country in early August. The country, which has about 2.1 million inhabitants, welcomed 6.2 million tourists, up 5.5 percent compared to 2022 and only 0.6 percent less than in 2019. Overnight stays grew by 3.5 percent year-on-year to a record 16.1 million, surpassing 2019 figures by two percent.

However, the industry has faced a number of challenges in recent years, one of which is a chronic shortage of staff. In Austria for example, the management consulting company Deloitte has examined the status quo in tourism with the Austrian Hoteliers Association (ÖHV). According to the report, high costs, staff shortages and the weak economy are a burden. 

The tourist zone at Ksamil Beach, 275 kilometers southwest of Tirana, Albania. Photo: Albanian Telegraphic Agency

EU supports tourism in the bloc’s neighbourhood

In North Macedonia, the number of tourists in the period from January until April 2024, compared to the same period last year, rose by 15.3 percent, and the number of overnight stays increased by 15.2 percent. A majority of those came from Turkey, Germany, Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia.

The country’s Agency for Promotion and Support of Tourism (APPT) is currently working on implementing the Interreg IPA-CBC “Аbove” project for cross border cooperation with Greece, funded through EU’s Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA). These funds support countries in the EU’s enlargement region.

Neighbouring Albania was visited by 10.1 million tourists last year, an increase of 35 percent compared to 2022, during which the country was visited by 7.5 million tourists. 

The upward trend continued in the first months of 2024, when about 974,000 foreign tourists visited Albania during May alone, bringing the total number of incoming tourist flows to more than 3.3 million in the first five months of the year.

Bulgaria and Croatia: adopting the Euro is key for tourism

Dr. Polina Karastoyanova, Executive Director of the National Tourism Board of Bulgaria, said during an economic forum in Sofia that it is important for Bulgaria as a tourist destination to become part of the Eurozone. She added that the tourism industry is one of the few sectors in the country that has the potential to double its size.

Speaking at a conference on the risks and challenges of the Euro changeover in Croatia, held at the end of May, Mislav Brkić of the Croatian National Bank argued that countries like Croatia – which already joined the Eurozone on January 1, 2023 – and Bulgaria have the most to gain from being a part of this currency union. He said that by adopting the Euro, his country became safer for the markets, and there would be a positive impact on tourism as well.

Tourism in Croatia is a major industry of the country’s economy, accounting for almost 20 percent of the gross domestic product. According to Eurostat data, Croatia ranked second in terms of the increase in foreign overnight stays in the first quarter of 2024: a 22 percent increase compared to the same period last year.

People stroll past Ballermann 6 on a sunny day.
People stroll past the Ballermann 6 beach club on a sunny day in Mallorca. Foto: Clara Margais/dpa

Cracking down on overcrowding

While the increasing levels of tourism in Europe offer an optimistic outlook for local and national economies, overcrowding during busy holiday seasons like the summer is causing growing resentment among the residents of popular hotspots across the continent.

The rise of websites such as Airbnb has created excesses such as mass tourism, illegal rentals and pressure on the housing market, according to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). 

In Italian cities like Venice, Rome and some cities in the Tuscany region, residents are calling for the flow of visitors to be better controlled and restricted. In an attempt to reduce the crowds, Venice has recently introduced an entrance fee for day trips.

In Spain, the mayor of Palma de Mallorca, Jaime Martínez, has presented a series of plans aimed at countering mass tourism in the city centre. The most sweeping proposal is a ban on more rental space for tourists in any form, local media reported. He also suggests introducing regulations to curb the rental of properties to foreigners.

In the Netherlands, Amsterdam also saw a rise of visitors in 2023 compared to the previous year. Last year, 15.1 million day visitors visited the capital, up from 13.4 million a year earlier. Some 60 percent of visitors came from the Netherlands, the rest from abroad.

The city expects the number of tourists to continue to rise. “The flow of visitors puts pressure on facilities and, in particular, the city centre is often too crowded,” according to a statement issued by the municipality.

In March 2024, the Council of the EU gave its final approval on a regulation requiring platforms to share data on landlords with municipalities, among others. This will allow local administrators to take stricter action if landlords do not comply with the rules. The European Parliament already approved the regulation in February this year.

Fact check: Rainbow flags on Greek hotels ahead of EuroPride 2024

From June 21-29, 2024, the Greek city of Thessaloniki will host the EuroPride, a pan-European international event for the LGBTQ+ community hosted by a different European city every year. The event draws lots of tourists to the host city during the celebrations. False claims circulating on social media in April said that the Greek government had issued a binding order for hotels in Thessaloniki to fly the rainbow flag ahead of the event.

The fact-checking team of Agence France-Presse (AFP) debunked these claims, explaining that the country’s tourism ministry provided hotels with guidelines to make their establishments more LGBTQ+-friendly – but these were only voluntary recommendations.

Read AFP’s full fact check here:

This article is published weekly. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.