It was recently reported that Easyjet were in discussion with the Greek authorities about trying to extend the Greek holiday season. We read that “EasyJet wants restaurants and hotels in Greece that currently open from May to September to take customers from March until November.”
This got me thinking about the whole topic of seasonality, which is a subject of concern for tourism businesses and for politicians in all tourist destinations worldwide. It is a simple fact that holidaymakers mainly want to travel when the weather is good, when facilities are available and when transport links work effectively. There is little benefit for the typical tourist in visiting the Lake District in November, when it is likely to be cold, wet and miserable, with little open. Or equally, why visit Venice in December or January, when it is also likely to be raining. I could go on at length at about which resorts to avoid and when, but that is not the purpose of this piece!
The net effect of this concentration of demand is that for most of Europe, there is a relatively short peak holiday season. The EU Statistical Service publishes a massive amount of data on European tourism, which is manna from heaven for a Facts and Data freak like me! In a news release in June 2015, they reported that “The summer season (June-September) accounts for more than half (51.9%) of the total number of tourism nights spent by EU residents during the whole year.” They went on to say that July and August effectively accounted for one third of total tourism stays for the entire year.
It is interesting that Eurostat regard summer as being simply June to September. For tour operators coming from a traditional charter background, we have always tried to operate Summer programmes from 1st May to 31st October, and even on occasion, beyond those dates. However, it seems that Eurostat are now discounting May and October, and pushing these into shoulder months.
The challenge for all tourism businesses, and anyone connected with them that if seasons get truncated to this extent is that there are 2 major impacts – the peaks get higher, with more people wanting to travel at the highest points of the season, and there is an ever longer down period when very few people are travelling at all. This means that tourism businesses are all trying to recover their operational costs over a shortening period, which simply pushes prices up even more in the peak periods. And to conclude this vicious circle, this then results in complaints about “rip off” prices in peak periods.
So, it seems to make perfect sense to extend the tourist season if at all possible – and there are clear benefits for governments, in adding to employment, and hopefully tax revenues; for tourism businesses, in extending their income stream, and even for tourists, in hopefully balancing prices. However, the problem is that the governments who could help by their policies on school holidays don’t seem to want to actually do anything to assist the process. The same Eurostat report also highlighted that across Europe, more than 60% of tourism is domestic – so UK tourism businesses are those most affected by a government which limits when school children can travel.
Turning back to Easyjet, the slightly cynical view is that they are probably asking the Greek government for an additional subsidy to extend their operating season, as well as increasing the utilisation of their fleet outside their peak season, but their suggestion that destinations need to be attractive to encourage tourists is clearly sensible. A couple of years ago, I visited Mallorca in November for a meeting, and was shocked driving round Magalluf and Palma Nova, where you could almost see the tumbleweed blowing down the streets. The airlines have progressively reduced flight programmes from the UK to Palma in the winter months, and the destination which was, if not year round, at least still operational over the winter has largely become a summer only island. It does at least have the benefit of hordes of cyclists descending for Spring training from around early February, so isn’t purely summer only.
However, trying to break through this issue, and address the seasonality issue is hard for the tourism industry and governments to address. The EU are playing around the edges, trying to encourage tourists from other parts of the world to visit Europe during the winter – but they equally face the same core problems that nothing is open and the weather is not particularly conducive to “chilling out”.
The Spanish government did recognise this problem, and attempted to put in place a solution based around social tourism. If you visited a hotel in the resorts in the Costa Blanca or Costa del Sol in the early Spring, you were likely to find it full of pensioners, taking holidays paid for by either the national or regional governments as recently as 2010, there were 1.2 million holidays subsidised by the Spanish government in this way.
It has always amazed me that other governments haven’t chosen to follow suit and copy this initiative. I know that there are other smaller examples across Europe, but Spain is the country who has recognised the “win-win” nature of this initiative. It keeps a lot of people in employment in hotels and other parts of the tourism chain in the winter or shoulder months, as well providing subsidised holidays for people who might not otherwise be able to afford to get away. If you think how many empty hotels there are in Greece in the winter months, wouldn’t this be a sensible way of boosting their economy. You can only assume that other European countries are more worried about trying to balance the books without thinking more widely about the overall economic benefits.
The other solution appears to be to encourage alternative tourist offerings. I have already mentioned cycling in Mallorca, but frankly, there are not that many examples of this which could easily be implemented. The holiday camps have introduced music festivals and similar events in the winter months, but to come back to my original point, it will always be challenging to get tourists to visit a “good weather” destination in less clement weather.
So, it looks like seasonality is here to stay – but chipping away at the edges has to be a sensible plan.