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European tourists boost sector, but can’t top Americans, Asians

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Greece was the 'new destination' this year as Europeans began to venture abroad as Covid restrictions eased for the summer./AFP
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Sep 07, 2021 - 05:47 AM

PARIS, FRANCE — European travellers helped plug a gap left by Asian and North American tourists stranded at home by the pandemic, staving off a total washout this year for Europe’s hospitality industry.

After a disastrous 2020 tourism season, the sector had banked on vaccination campaigns and the easing of travel restrictions to see brighter days this summer.

While European visitors might have shored up numbers, the recovery was patchy with tourists spending in different places, on different things — and not with the same largesse as the big-spending Chinese or Americans.

Fears over suddenly changing Covid travel restrictions and — for the UK, especially — the cost of mandatory Covid-19 tests have also driven the disruption to travel patterns this summer.

Tourism-dependent Greece hosted more than two million visitors in July and August — “something we haven’t seen since 2019,” said Haris Theocharis, the tourism minister until a cabinet reshuffle in late August.

Napolean, the owner of a bar in Athen’s Plaka tourist hot-spot, said he had exceeded his targets “by more than 50 percent” this summer.

But at the nearby Byron Hotel, co-manager Zimi Mistiopoulos said they only had 10 days of full occupancy. Two years ago, there wasn’t a room to be had all season, he said.

“Even if the tourists were there, they didn’t buy that much,” said Dimitris Papachristodoulou, owner of several souvenir shops, lamenting the loss of Americans and Chinese, “who consume the most”.

Not quite there 

Those groups were also absent from Italy, where the Hotel Cosmopolita in the heart of Rome has had “an average of three or five occupied rooms out of 82”, said Walter Pecoraro, the owner and president of the hoteliers’ association of Lazio, the capital region.

“Roman tourism is 80 percent foreign, 80 percent of which are Americans and Asians,” he told AFP.

According to the association, 600 hotels out of 1,200 in Rome were open this summer, with average occupancy at only 30-35 percent.

Spain, the world’s second-largest tourist destination behind France in 2019, welcomed 4.4 million visitors in July, 78 percent up on a year earlier, national statistics institute data show.

But that’s a far cry from the 9.9 million in pre-pandemic 2019.

The Mediterranean coast was the most favoured destination: establishments in Catalonia recorded an occupancy rate close to 95 percent in August.

The French were Spain’s top visitors, with 874,000 vacationing there, ahead of the Germans (707,000) and the British (555,000).

Brits, in pre-Covid times the largest contingent, this year largely opted to stay at home.

Bookings are “running at a fraction of a normal year with the main barriers to travel being concerns about the traffic light system” of colour-coded restrictions and the cost of tests, the British federation of travel agents said.

Those who decided to go anyway opted mainly for the islands of Spain and Greece.

“What stands out this summer is that very few destinations were open,” said Ana Domenech, France director of booking site lastminute.com.

“Greece was clearly the new destination of the summer, with 79 percent more travellers than in 2019,” she said.

Holiday at home 

In fact, more than 450,000 French made their way to Greece this year.

But as with the UK, people travelling within their own countries also created “a beautiful summer” for the domestic industry, said Sebastien Manceau, an expert in tourism at the Roland Berger consulting firm.

Of the 37 million French people who went on holiday this summer, 85 percent stayed in the country, according to Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, junior minister for tourism.

“As the weather was capricious, some regions suffered, such as Brittany and Normandy”, to the benefit of the south of France, Manceau said.

At Les Sableres campsite in Vieux-Boucau, on the southwest coast, the 500 pitches were full from mid-July to the end of August, and up to 150 requests per day had to be turned down.

We “returned to the levels of 2019, if not better”, the site’s director, Herve Labarthe, said.

And the foreigners have returned — at least from within Europe: Belgians, Dutch, Germans.

“But we still don’t have the British,” Monceau said.

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