Summer is that time of year when millions of Europeans go on holiday or have travel on their minds. But tourism is not just about rest and recreation, it is also serious business and is an important sector of the European economy.
In fact, the EU – with its rich and diverse history, culture and natural beauty – is the world’s foremost tourist destination, and amongst the world’s top ten destinations are six EU Member States. Each year, nearly 400 million international arrivals – or more than two-fifths of the global figure – touches down in one of the EU’s 27 Member States. In addition, EU residents make nearly 1 billion holiday trips annually, with three-quarters of these to a destination within their own country.
In economic terms, the tourism sector is made up of some 1.8 million companies, many of them SMEs, and accounts for about 5% of the Union’s GDP and employment, providing jobs for an estimated 12 to 14 million Europeans. In addition, growth in employment in the tourism sector has, over the past decade, generally been greater than in the wider economy.
Moreover, tourism can also play a significant role in building prosperity in European regions. Infrastructure created for tourism can serve other purposes and contribute to local development, while tourism-related employment can help counteract industrial or rural decline.
Against the backdrop of the financial and economic crisis which affected tourism globally in 2008 and 2009, international experts are confident that tourism will recover soon and continue its promising development .The forecast for the future remains sunny: the sector is projected to continue its upward trajectory for years to come. In fact, by 2020, the EU is set to attract more than 715 million visitors, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation.
Challenges to tackle
Despite this positive outlook, Europe’s tourism sector faces certain economic, social and environmental challenges. These include increasing competition from destinations in other parts of the world; the environmental impact of tourism; the need to seize new market opportunities, such as attracting tourists from emerging markets; developing and shifting intra-European tourism to ‘alternative’ – still unknown, but emerging – destinations or off-season travel; the impact on demand of the greying of the European population; as well as technological change.
Tackling these issues will require a coherent policy framework, not just at the national level, but also at the European level, given tourism’s cross-border nature. Towards that end, the EU’s new Lisbon Treaty has created, for the first time at the European level, a legal basis entirely devoted to tourism which specifies that “the Union shall complement the action of the Member States in the tourism sector, in particular by promoting the competitiveness of Union undertakings in that sector”.
Building on the foundation provided by the Lisbon Treaty, the European Commission unveiled and proposed a tourism strategy to pave the way to greater competitiveness and sustainability for the sector in the future. “It is our aim to keep Europe the world's top tourist destination,” said Antonio Tajani, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Entrepreneurship and Industry. “[This] Communication lays down 21 actions that will thrust Europe’s tourism industry into the 21st century.”
The 21 actions are divided into four main areas: improving the competitiveness of the European tourism sector; promoting sustainable, responsible and qualitative tourism; enhancing Europe's image as a home to sustainable and high quality destinations; and maximising the potential of EU policies and financial instruments for the development of European tourism.
Among the actions proposed for enhancing European tourism’s competitiveness are activities to promote the diversification of the tourism options on offer, such as pan-European thematic tourism products. In addition, technology, such as the roll-out of the latest ICT tools, and the development of skills to meet changing market expectations and realities, figure highly here, as do efforts to extend the tourism season, such as through promoting social tourism (see box).
Sustainability is closely linked to competitiveness, because the quality of tourist destinations is strongly influenced by their natural and cultural environment and their integration into a local community. In order to make European tourism more sustainable, the European Commission proposes a number of actions, including the sustainable use of resources, sound environmental management practices and the promotion of sustainable destinations, such as through the EDEN initiative (see box).
Other EU policy areas – including environment, transport, employment, competition, the single market and consumer protection – have an impact on tourism. The Commission’s strategy strives to ensure that tourism is better integrated into these policies, as well as into the related EU financial instruments (such as the European Structural Funds and various other multi-annual funding programmes), so that they can fully realise their potential for the development of this important sector.
Excellence in EDEN
The EU’s European Destinations of Excellence (EDEN) award seeks to put Europe’s emerging and less-frequented tourist areas – which pursue a socially, culturally and environmentally sustainable development path – on the travel map of European citizens.
EDEN also aims to boost awareness of Europe’s touristic diversity and quality, and promote tourism in all EU countries and regions. So far, four editions of EDEN have been held.
National competitions take place every year and result in the selection of a tourist “destination of excellence” for each participating country. All the selected destinations have one thing in common: their commitment to social, cultural and environmental sustainability. Each year has its own theme. In 2007, it was emerging rural destinations of excellence. The following year, it was tourism and local intangible heritage. In 2009, the focus was put on tourism and protected areas, while this year’s theme is aquatic tourism. Next year’s focus will be on tourism and the regeneration of physical sites.
Promoting off-season tourism
Although millions of Europeans go on holiday every year, there are those who cannot afford to or who are otherwise excluded from travelling for leisure or learning purposes, such as certain segments of the elderly, youth and people with disabilities.
The EU is addressing this issue through the promotion of a concept known as ‘social tourism’, which is not only good for specific target groups but can also help promote off-season travel and develop the tourism sector in Europe’s regions, especially those that are off the regular tourism map.
An example of activities in this area is the EU-funded Calypso preparatory action which targets four main groups: underprivileged young adults aged between 18 and 30; families facing financial or other pressures; people with disabilities; and over-65s and pensioners who cannot afford travel or are daunted by the challenges of organising a journey.
Named for the Greek sea nymph who for seven years played host to that ancient traveller and adventurer Odysseus/Ulysses on her island, the project has examined the best ways and means to facilitate the exchange of ideas and good practice on how to promote trans-national tourism exchanges in a way that benefits not only specific target groups, but also the tourism sector, the wider economy and society at large. So far, 21 EU and candidate countries have participated in the existing initiatives.