European holidaymakers could turn to destinations such as Bulgaria and Cape Verde if they want to avoid high prices in busy Spanish destinations, the chief executive of European tourism group Tui said on Thursday.
Tourists have been flooding into Spain over the last two years due to security concerns around rival summer destinations such as Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey. Visitors to Spain jumped 12% in the first half of 2017 to 36.4 million.
Reports have also circulated in the past week that chronic overcrowding in some of Europe’s most beloved tourism hotspots is fuelling a backlash by locals against visitors.
“Spain is pretty full,” Friedrich Joussen said after Tui – known as Thomson in the UK – reported third-quarter results. “Last year we had an all-time high and this year we will be on similar levels.”
Joussen said most people in Spain were happy with tourists because they help provide jobs and support the economy. But with prices for Spain rising due to high demand, other more affordable destinations could come into play.
The higher prices could be a factor in particular for British customers, with the cost of their holidays rising due to the weak pound following the Brexit vote.
“Initially we saw some weakening demand, but it’s now resilient so people are getting used to higher prices,” Joussen said of UK customers.
He said Tui would probably not reduce capacity for Turkey next year because demand was coming back. And he said the group would look at adding Tunisia back into its programme but no decision had yet been taken.
Britons have ditched the traditional two-week holiday in favour of shorter breaks as no-frills airlines have taken off over the last 20 years, according to official figures that also confirm the demise of the booze cruise.
A review of travel trends since the mid-1990s by the Office for National Statistics highlighted a dramatic rise in the number of holidays taken by UK residents. In 2016, they went on more than 45m foreign holidays, up from 27m in 1996. That was a 68% increase, while the UK population rose by 12% in the same period.
The ONS also found that seven- and 10-day holidays had become more popular than 14-day breaks.
The types of holidays taken had also changed over those two decades, statisticians found. But there was little difference in Britons’ top destinations. Spain and France remained the most popular, albeit with a dip in journeys to France.
“One of the biggest changes we’ve seen over the last 20 years is the marked decline in the popularity of two-week holidays and the rise of short breaks,” the ONS said in a travel roundup released as many people head off for their summer breaks.
“The week-long break is a lot more popular than before, and there’s also been an increase in the number of holidays lasting 10 nights.”
One of the most likely explanations for UK residents going on more but shorter holidays was the growth of budget airlines, the ONS said.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, EU leaders relaxed the rules to create a common aviation area across Europe, allowing low-cost carriers such as easyJet and Ryanair to enter the market, it noted. Between 1996 and 2015 – the most recent figures available – passenger numbers at UK airports increased by 85%, from 135m to 251m.
The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) said its figures also showed that cheaper flights and greater flexibility by travel companies had driven a shift away from the standard two-week break in the sun and a rise in shorter breaks. The group also highlighted a rise in city breaks thanks to the EU’s Europe-wide “open skies” regulation.
Commenting on the ONS figures, an Abta spokeswoman said: “These stats are a reflection of how far we have come in 20 years and how important it is that we keep similar agreements in place post-Brexit.”
The ONS travel roundup also highlighted a steep decline over the past two decades in people travelling abroad and returning the same day. There were more than 2m trips with no overnight stay in 1996 but only 363,000 last year.
“This could be because many of these visits were booze cruises – journeys across the English Channel to stock up on alcohol and cigarettes – which are no longer as cost-efficient as they used to be,” the ONS said.
“Duty-free sales within the EU ended in 1999, France has been ratcheting up the price of cigarettes since 2000, and in recent years the pound has fallen in value against the euro.”
While the general trend from 1996 to 2016 was a sharp rise in the number of holidays taken, the travel industry has faced tougher times since last summer’s Brexit vote. The pound fell sharply after the referendum, making overseas holidays more expensive and prompting some Britons to opt for staycations. The pound dropped to a 10-month low against the euro of about €1.10 on Monday.
The consultancy Deloitte said its latest research showed holiday spending had risen in the second quarter of this year from the first. But comparing consumer habits with a year ago showed the general pressures on household budgets from higher living costs.
“While spending on holidays was up quarter on quarter, the longer-term trend shows that it has fallen year on year,” said Simon Oaten, a partner for hospitality and leisure at Deloitte.
“These are the first signs of a weakening in consumer confidence with regards to their holiday spending, and it remains to be seen whether this proves to be a blip or the start of a prolonged slowdown that echoes what we have seen in other areas of the consumer market.”
Comparing the most popular holiday destinations in 1996 and 2016, the ONS report found Britons’ love affair with Spain had bloomed, with the number of holidays taken there annually up by 87% in 20 years. France was one of the few countries that UK tourists were now visiting less than in 1996, with the number of holidays there down 9%.
Seeking to explain the change, the ONS said: “Budget airlines may be behind this too: rather than driving to France on a ferry (the number of holidaymakers travelling by sea has declined by 33% since 1996), tourists are perhaps opting for a cheap flight elsewhere instead.”
Germany joined the top 10 destinations for UK holidaymakers and another new entry was cruising, which was four times as popular as it was 20 years ago. “This could be due to an ageing population, with increasing numbers of older people in the population,” the ONS said.
Two destinations that dropped out of the top 10 since 1996 were Belgium and Turkey. Outside the top 10, places that had grown in popularity since the 1990s included the United Arab Emirates, thanks to a jump in trips to Dubai. There was also an increase in visits to Iceland, starting about 2010, the ONS said.
“2010 was also the year that the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, sending clouds of ash into the skies above Europe and grounding planes across the world, and some think that the TV pictures of Iceland shown around the globe encouraged visitors to go there,” it added.
August has seen holiday dreams turn into nightmares across much of Europe by a combination of a heatwave so bad it has been named after the devil, protests against tourists, and airports transformed into overcrowded traps.
High temperatures have claimed lives in Italy and Romania, and across the continent there has been a rise in hospital admissions, concern about wildfires and a threat of water and power shortages.
From Kiev to Rome, people were spotted jumping into public fountains to beat the heat, even defying new fines in the Italian capital in a bid to cool off. Across the country hospital admissions have leapt 15% and at least three people have died as a result of extreme weather, leading Italians to brand the hot spell Lucifero. Authorities in several countries have brought in temporary restrictions on working hours and traffic as the mercury climbed above 40C, and people have been urged to stay inside and avoid alcohol. In Belgrade, a public health institute said householders without air conditioning should put wet towels over their windows.
The heat is so intense that it buckled train tracks in Serbia, adding to travel chaos, and largely alpine Slovenia reported its first “tropical night”, with temperatures that never dipped below 20C even at 1,500 metres above sea level.
The misery was intensified by chaos at several airports, particularly Barcelona’s, where a combination of stronger EU border controls and a strike left both Spaniards and tourists queuing for hours. Some travellers waited so long they missed their flights.
And in a further blow to tourism, some disgruntled locals in regions where holidaymakers are an economic mainstay have turned against an industry they say now brings more harm than good to their communities. “Tourism-phobia: the worst message at the worst time,” Spain’s El Mundo said in an editorial.
Only weeks after thousands of Venetians took to the streets for a peaceful demonstration against mass tourism, activists in Spain launched a more violent protest. Anti-tourism group Arran vandalised tourist bikes and a bus in Barcelona, slashing tyres and daubing slogans on the bus windows. In Palma de Mallorca, members of the same group burst into restaurants and boarded boats in the harbour with flares, carrying banners saying “tourism is killing Mallorca”. There have also been protests in Valencia, and one has been called in the Basque city of San Sebastián.
The Spanish tourism minister, Álvaro Nadal, has warned against “tourism-phobia”, saying that Spain “can’t allow itself to be perceived as a country that is hostile to tourists”. After a decade of misery, the country’s economy has finally returned to pre-crisis size, and an attack on tourism threatens one of the most lucrative strands of its income.
Europe had already been hit by drought and an extended July heat wave, contributing to wildfires in Portugal that killed 60. The return of high temperatures has stirred memories of Europe’s disastrous summer of 2003, when intense heat caused 15,000 extra deaths.
At least four deaths have been linked to the heat wave so far: two pensioners killed in wildfires in Italy and two Romanians who died from heat-related conditions. And the economic impact will last long after the heat fades, with olive oil production in Italy expected to be down by nearly a third, and vineyards also affected.
Researchers warned however that last week’s misery may become routine, with a report in speciality journal the Lancet Planetary Health warning that by the end of the century heat waves in Europe could cause 50 times more deaths than at present. There could be as many as 151,500 “heat-related fatalities” each year, compared with an average of 2,700 annually in the 30 years to 2010.
Adding to the misery of sweltering locals and visitors, airports were struggling to cope with high numbers of travellers and new security rules on one of the busiest weekends of the year.
Changes made in the wake of the Paris and Brussels terror attacks demand more checks on passengers from countries outside the 26-nation Schengen border-free zone, which includes the UK. Many airports have struggled to cope, and in Barcelona’s main hub a strike has exacerbated travellers’ misery.
Despite heeding advice to arrive early, several passengers said they nearly missed their flights. Luke Hansell, flying to Birmingham with his mother, said he arrived four hours early after reading warnings in news reports, then spent 90 minutes in the security queue.
After the failure of mediation, more hour-long strikes by the staff who operate scanners, search passengers and control the queues at the airport resume on Sunday. Others are scheduled for Monday, Friday and next Sunday.
A phrase really jumped out at me from a newspaper last week. The Times said a recent survey into Spanish attitudes to Britain, conducted by the tourism agency Visit Britain, “found that only 12% of Spaniards considered the UK to be the best place for food and drink”. That, I thought to myself, may be the most extraordinary use of the word “only” I have ever seen.
Has its meaning recently flipped? Has it been warped by an internet hashtag or ironic usage by rappers? Is it like how “bad” or “wicked” can mean good, and actors receiving awards use the word “humbled” to mean “incredibly impressed with myself”? Because, if “only” still means what I think it means, the paper is implying it expected more than 12% of the people of Spain to think Britain was “the best place for food and drink”.
That’s quite a slur on the Spanish. How delusional did it expect them to be? What percentage of them would it expect to think the world was flat? I know we’re moving into a post-truth age, but 12% of a culinarily renowned nation considering Britain, the land of the Pot Noodle and the garage sandwich, to be the world’s No 1 destination for food and drink is already a worrying enough finding for the Spanish education system to address. It would be vindictive to hope for more.
But it seems that’s what Visit Britain and the Foreign Office are going for. Last week the British ambassador to Spain, Simon Manley, donned a union jack apron and went on the hit Spanish cookery programme El Comidista to advocate British cuisine and try to change the perceptions of the 88% of the Spanish population still currently in their right minds. It was his second appearance on the programme: the first was last year when he was “summoned” to explain Jamie Oliver’s heretical addition of chorizo to paella. He responded with a recipe for roast chicken with mustard.
This is all very jocular and a welcome distraction from Gibraltar, but I hope Visit Britain doesn’t get carried away with this food push. I really don’t think the 12% figure is one it should be disappointed with, even if, on closer examination of the survey, the respondents didn’t actually say they thought Britain was “the best place for food and drink”, just that sampling the food and drink would be a motivation for choosing the UK for a holiday.
Maybe some of the 12% are enthusiastic food anthropologists whose motivation for going anywhere is to try the food and drink. They’ve consumed everything from yak testicles to locust wee, so fascinated are they by humankind’s huge range of nourishment techniques. A bit of academic interest, and the memory of a disappointing white ant egg soup or crispy tarantula, might really help soften the blow of a first baffled visit to the salad cart at a Harvester.
You may say I’m talking Britain down, and I’m certainly not talking it up. I would argue, though, that I’m talking it along. Food here is OK. Or rather, it’s sometimes terrible and sometimes delicious but usually neither and it averages out as fine. Lots of us are really fat now – that’s got to be a good sign.
I think the host of El Comidista, Mikel López Iturriaga, got it about right when he said: “For many Spaniards, British food is the ultimate example of bad international cuisine…” – and there are many outlets on the Costa Del Sol that work tirelessly to recreate that flavour for British visitors – “…but I think that everything has improved substantially in recent years, and today it is much easier to find decent food.” So decent food is now available. That’s not a reason to pick Britain as a holiday destination – but it’s a reason not to be afraid to.
And our ambassador betrayed weaknesses in our cooking, even as he spoke up for it: “The idea is to combat the stereotype about British food and drink and promote the idea that we take ideas from around the world and we adapt them for this cosmopolitan cuisine we know today.”
What does that mean? Despairing of our grim native fare, we steal dishes from other countries and slightly ruin them? Put chorizo in the paella and cream in the bolognese and make baguettes with the consistency of sponge? Or was he saying that our comparative dearth of culinary excellence has allowed us a greater open-mindedness to other cultures’ food traditions, which has now dragged our own food standards slightly closer to par?
If you work in the catering industry, you may well be screaming at me for unjustly perpetuating this country’s no-longer-deserved reputation for shit grub. I’m sorry, and I almost certainly don’t mean you: there is, as I say, brilliant food to be had in Britain. There always has been, I suppose, but I’m sure there’s more of it now.
But the stereotype bemoaned by the ambassador has its basis in truth: delicious food has never been a cultural priority. In our collective national soul, we don’t believe that the niceness of meals is that important. Perhaps on special occasions, but not every day. So we get more crumbs in our keyboards than European neighbours such as France and Italy, which the 12% of Spaniards looking for gastronomic holidays would be well advised to visit first.
The fact that food has improved in Britain is a sign, not of a major change in those cultural priorities, but of two other factors: how international we’ve become and our competitive spirit. The food has been brought up to standard, for the same reasons that we’ve put in proper coffee machines and wifi – to show we’re keeping up. We proudly note how highly the restaurants of chefs like Heston Blumenthal come in international rankings even as we peel the film off our microwave dinners. In food, as in cycling, Britain can now win.
As most Spaniards noted in the survey, there are better reasons to go to Britain than the food: the history, the castles, the stately homes, the museums, the countryside, the coastline, the concerts, the theatre, the cities. We have an interesting country, an interesting past and we’re an interesting people: no nastier than most and hard to ignore. And, for better or worse, what we are, what we have, and whatever it is that our culture represents, comes from centuries of working through lunch.