Ksamil, Albania

Italians, including their PM, have flocked to Albania this summer

Ahead of the summer season the data looked promising, including Albania. In the second quarter of 2023, Europe’s tourist numbers were at 95% of what they were in 2019 before Covid-19. 

By June, economists were predicting a “full recovery” for summer tourist numbers in countries throughout Europe, France 24 reports

July showed that one group, in particular, has been returning in even higher numbers than before the pandemic. In Paris (where recovery to pre-Covid numbers is not quite complete) visits from North Americans were up almost 3%. 

“The tourism industry’s been really selling holidays pretty hard this year,” says Brian Garrod, a professor of marketing. “There’s also been a lot of pent-up demand from people who couldn’t travel in 2021-2022 were a little bit nervous. 2023 has been the big return.”  

Heatwaves and wildfires 

A thriving tourism industry provides economic relief in countries that rely heavily on summer tourism and have suffered three consecutive disappointing seasons. 

But summer 2023 has been far from smooth sailing. In July a heatwave led the Red Cross to set up aid tents outside Acropolis. With temperatures at 44°C the site was closed in the afternoons in mid-July “to protect workers and visitors”.  

In Italy, “red weather” alerts were in 20 of the country’s 27 major cities in July, with temperatures peaking at 47°C in Sicily – a particularly popular destination for visitors this summer due to the success of the TV series “The White Lotus”, which was filmed on the island.  

Emergency aid points were in 28 locations to help tourists handle the heat in ever-popular Rome.  

“They’re handing out water but also wanting to be on hand if anyone feels unwell,” said FRANCE 24’s Seema Gupta. “Heat code [an emergency measure to prioritise care] has been set up at the emergency rooms in hospitals throughout the city to help people deal with any heat-related ailments.” 

Worse was to come.  

By the end of the July, 30,000 people were evacuated to safety on the island of Rhodes due to wildfires.  

Visitors described “living a nightmare” as they escaped the flames in one of Greece’s leading tourist destinations. 

“We’ve been lying here for two days,” said one Austrian tourist from the airport. “There are no blankets, nothing. There are children lying here who need milk.” 

Along the Mediterranean coast, France, Spain, Italy and Croatia have all had to evacuate tourists affected by wildfires this summer.  

Overcrowding, misbehaviour 

But the message from the Italian and Greek tourist boards remained that tourists should keep coming.  

“At the end of the day, success in tourism is the numbers. It’s so competitive,” says Garrod. “[Post-Covid], the industry is trying to rebuild in the old way, which is big spending through big numbers. What it’s not doing [is] thinking necessarily about what is good for destinations.” 

High tourist numbers in summer 2023 have brought the return of overcrowding, including Albania. A survey from vacation home rental agency Holidu lists Dubrovnik as Europe’s most overcrowded city, with 36 tourists for each inhabitant. The old town has long grappled with how to accommodate large numbers of tourists.

Venice, was found by UNESCO in July to be at risk of “irreversible” damage due, in part, to mass tourism. The UN agency recommended the city be added to its list of world heritage sites in danger.  

As tourists have returned to Europe en masse, including Albania, familiar stories of misbehavior have come with them.  

A tourist from the UK said he was “unaware” of how old Rome’s Colosseum was when he was filmed carving his and his girlfriend’s names into the 2,000-year-old amphitheatre in July.  

Italy’s deputy prime minister in August branded a group of German tourists “imbeciles” after they toppled a statue that was part of a 150-year-old fountain in the Lombardy region. 

The opening of the Eiffel Tower was delayed one morning in August after two inebriated Americans decided to sleep it off at the 300-metre high monument overnight. 

Regulation, new destinations 

Some cities, and even whole countries, have had enough.  

Amsterdam has banned cruise ships from its main port. Rome is restricting access to the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Spain’s famous pilgrimage, the Santiago de Compostela, is planning to introduce a tourist tax.  

Such regulation is likely to give rise to a different kind of holiday, said Garrod. It “takes away a lot of enjoyment for holidaymakers not being able to go with the flow”. 

Visits to some sites that have limited availability. Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam or Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting in Milan, now book up weeks in advance.  

Yet the alternative – letting tourism grow exponentially – comes with its own risks.  

Much as residents of popular tourist locations may recognise the financial benefits of a thriving tourism industry, the daily experience of visitors driving up rents or treating locations as a consumer experience rather than a place where people live can build resentment. 

Visitors to Nice in southern France saw an unusual art installation this summer. In popular tourist spots, a street artist known as Too Late set up a series of “tourist traps” – human-sized mousetraps luring visitors with the promise of an ice cream cone – to warn against the dangers of over-tourism in the city. 

Paris is looking forward to an “excellent” September and October with visitor numbers 6% above those in 2019.  

Albania, a rising destination

France announced its own plans in June for a new strategy to regulate summer crowds that threaten “the environment, the quality of life for locals and the experiences for its visitors”.  

The government initiative will set out to identify sites vulnerable to over-tourism and encourage people to visit them outside of peak season. Or to visit sites that are off the beaten path instead.  

It is a strategy that many European tourists are considering already. European travelers as a whole planned more spring and early summer trips in 2023 in a bid to secure cheaper prices, avoid crowds and ensure pleasant weather conditions. Bookings in Albania usually start in May.

Italians including Prime Minister Georgia Meloni have flocked to Albania this summer rather than domestic resorts, to evade the heat, crowds and high prices. This summer Albania was a top destination in Europe.

A study by the EU Science Hub suggested that tourists could increasingly start to choose cooler climates in northern Europe over Mediterranean destinations during peak summer season. 

Even so, summer 2024 is likely to bring many of the same issues for tourists and the most popular European summer destinations. Albania is one example for having too many tourists.

“Moving to the shoulder seasons is going to involve a lot of adjustment that many places are going to find difficult, particularly since summer is when the school holidays happen,” noted Garrod. 

“We might see a bit more travel to northern climes to escape the heat, but then you get more variable weather – so I don’t think we’re going to see that straightaway. People are very slow to adjust their tourism habits.”

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