University of Malta
Institute for Tourism, Travel & Culture
The Mediterranean region has a particular natural ecosystem and has developed a rich diversity of cultural and historical heritage. It arguably still benefits from mild climatic conditions, albeit increasingly erratic and extreme, has varyingly populated and generally relatively well-connected locations. All this has made it a sought-after travel spot destination.
In 2019, before the onset of COVID-19, the Mediterranean region was welcoming annually more than 400 million of international tourists arrivals (ITAs). This made it one of the most popular destinations in the world. The tourism sector accounted for up to 15% of regional GDP, with a 75% growth rate since 1995. It was expected to reach 626 million ITAs by 2025 according to the UN World Tourism Organization (WTO).
The Mediterranean Sea hosts up to 9% of the world’s marine biodiversity of which around 30% are endemic species. However, 51% of native marine fish species are in danger of extinction and 4% are listed as near threatened due to the loss of habitats from unsustainable exploitation of resources, pollution, climate change, eutrophication and invasive marine species.
However, biodiversity is fundamental to the Mediterranean economy. Benefits derived from related ecosystem services estimated over €26 billion a year. Of these, more than two-thirds come from tourism.
The negative environmental impacts of tourism on the coastal and maritime areas originate mostly from the construction and operations of built infrastructures. These include resorts, residencies, ports and marinas and facilities. They also stem from maritime or coastal recreational activities, including nautical tourism, golf courses and water sports.
These negative externalities consist of water and energy consumption, especially in water sensitive areas, where they lead to land change and artificialisation of the coast, pollution and biodiversity loss.
Marine litter is another critical issue. In some Mediterranean tourism areas, more than 75% of the annual waste production is generated during the summer. Given the general sectoral growth, these environmental and social pressures seem like they are likely to increase if regulation of tourism flows is not drafted and implemented. Given that Northern Mediterranean countries are a rather mature tourism destination, most of these pressures tend to be stationary there, but they may increase in the coming years in Southern Mediterranean Countries.
The same pressures also take a toll on the tourist industry as it lowers the attractiveness of tourist destinations. This loss of competitiveness due to pressures from coastal tourism is evident from waste pollution, including the presence of faecal water in beaches, and the degradation of flora and fauna due to water scarcity derived from tourist infrastructure.
The development of coastal tourism infrastructure, which is especially dense from Southern Spain to Northern Italy, has eliminated entire ecosystems and has resulted in highly vulnerable economies dependent on mass tourism.
Moreover, the tourism sector in the Mediterranean is suffering from growing pressures linked to the effects of climate change. Coastal erosion, for example, is already evident throughout the Mediterranean coast, especially in the southern part. Lack of water, coastal erosion, rising sea levels are just some of the challenges that climate change poses to tourism operators and other stakeholders on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The most worrying impact in the medium (2030) and long-term (2050) are in the Eastern (Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine) and Western (Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia) southern countries.
The Tourism sector is labour intensive. It contributes an average 11.5% of total employment in Mediterranean countries, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). It employs a high volume of both low-skilled and higher-skilled workers, with a heavy turnover from seasonal, part-time and temporary jobs, while providing employment opportunities for many people including those that do not always fit easily into the labour market: these include migrants, women, students, older workers, and people in rural and coastal areas, sometimes in remote locations, that depend on these jobs to maintain their livelihoods.
The ample availability of the workforce for temporary jobs in the touristic seasons and locations gives tourism work particular characteristics. This happens through functional flexibility and low wages, which in turn translates into structural insecurity for the workers themselves.
Professions in social care, facilities cleaning, retail, transport, travel and tourism, leisure, and hospitality are suffering low pays, poor working conditions, little to no advancement, lack of training, and highly gender-segregated workload for women.
The significant share of the informal sector, including street vendors and the rise of owner-to-visitor platforms for accommodations, is also hindering the constitution of worker’s unions to better the working conditions of low-skilled tourism workers.
According to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), up to 2018 Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SME) and autonomous workers together make up about 80% of jobs in the tourism sector. Tourism jobs make up 13,5% of total employment in Spain, 10% in Greece, and 9.8% in Portugal.
However, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been 100 million jobs lost in tourism, and a gross economic loss estimated between US $910 billion and $1.2 trillion in exports.
The tourism sector was greatly affected in 2020 as countries worldwide followed confinements and travel bans to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The decline in economic activity and travel worldwide started in the second half of March 2020. Air, maritime, road and train travel saw a drastic decline in activity. At the same time, cruise ships stood stranded at sea as ports and frontiers closed down to stop the spread of the disease.
All regions across the globe were hit. After Asia and the Pacific, the first to suffer the impact of COVID-19, Europe has been the second-hardest impacted region with a 66% decline in international tourist arrivals. During the summer of 2020, some countries across the Mediterranean region saw a rebound of visitors, while still enduring health restrictions. However, tourists largely preferred to stay within their countries of origin and avoid air travel abroad.
Tourism was expected to grow by 3 to 4% points before the 2020 pandemic, and it is now at risk of a 80% decline, per UNWTO estimates.
UNWTO, International Tourism and covid-19, October 2020.OECD, Tourism Policy Responses to COVID-19, 2020.IMF, Policy Responses to COVID-19, 2020.
In the Northern-Western part of the Mediterranean, Spain is the country which suffered the most from the COVID-19 outbreak. The government adopted measures such as tax deferrals and exemptions, and protected the workers affected by the crisis through temporary employment adjustment schemes.
In France, the lockdown measures heavily impacted the tourism sector, which then suffered a slowed-down summer season. Measures enforced by the government to remedy the situation include a credit facilitation instead of refunds for the hotels and accommodations suffering cancelled bookings, as well as an 18€ billion to support the various actors of the tourism sector.
For the Southern Mediterranean, in Morocco, the government also contributed to protecting unemployed people and deferred social contribution payments for a number of sectors, including tourism. More so, the tourism ministry launched a label guaranteeing the respect of health safety protocols in tourism accommodation establishments, “Welcome Safely”, in order to restore customer’s confidence in the destination.
In Tunisia, where international travel hit a 80% decline in the first semester of 2020 compared to the year prior, a policy of deferral of payments for the operators of the tourism sector suffering from the pandemic was enabled.
As at the beginning of 2021, more than 100 million COVID-19 cases have been confirmed worldwide, as per the World Health Organization data. The social and economic consequences for the tourism sector will thus be felt for years to come, and the uncertainty is still a major factor in the equation, forbidding both public and private actors to build up hope for a changed landscape in the near future.
While in the second half of 2020, 53% of destinations temporarily eased travel restrictions, it will be a slow recovery. The elderly (65+), for example, may be fearful of travelling for the upcoming years, while those subject to financial setbacks brought about by the COVID 19-induced economic crisis will have less disposable income to spend in tourism.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) drew scenarios of what the sector can expect in the coming months, based on various estimates of the COVID-19 spread. However, the return to the pre-pandemic level of 2019 is not expected before 3 to 4 years, if at all, depending on the vaccine timeline. These scenarios point to a recovery of sorts in the year 2021, provided that the contagion numbers decrease, which would lead to a boost in travellers confidence on the side of
the customers and a lifting of travel restrictions on the side of government regulations.
The first scenario draws a recovery for mid-2023, the second by the end of 2023 and the third by the end of 2024. For 2021 at least, the numbers of international arrivals will remain below those of 2019 in all cases22.
The only steady trend in the foreseeable future is the resuming of domestic tourism within European countries. Due to travel restrictions, closed borders and the risks of transmission via air travel and domestic tourism are privileged by travelers. Indeed, The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecast for 202024 shows that domestic tourism is the backbone of the tourism industry, with 75% of tourism expenditure coming from internal travellers. Domestic tourism seems like what will drive the recovery for the industry.
Domestic tourism also suffered the least dramatic drop compared to international arrivals: in Europe, in July 2020, there was only a 22% decline compared to 2019 in nights spent by EU residents in tourist accommodation inside their own country – compared to a 64% for non-national tourists. Many countries have thus started offering incentives to national travellers, from renewed marketing campaigns to subsidies to facilities so that they are more affordable for low to middle-class vacationers.
Such examples include: In Italy, a “Bonus Vacanze” contributing up to 500€ to families with low-middle incomes to spend in domestic tourism locations; or a nationwide campaign highlighting the country’s destinations in France.
Observers seem to reach a broad consensus in noting that the tourism sector as it stood pre-pandemic was highly unsustainable. Transport, including international travel, was the biggest emitting sector across the European Union, ranging from 15 to 40% of countries’ carbon emissions, with total transport emissions accounting for about 30% of all EU emissions. Maritime transportation represents nearly 4% of this number. At a global scale, carbon emissions from tourism are estimated roughly at 8% of total carbon emissions, mainly due to air transport, growing year after year.
European Commission, Domestic tourism recovers faster than foreign tourism – Product, 2020. European Environmental Agency, Transport emissions of greenhouse- gases, 2018.
Lenzen, M., Sun, YY., Faturay, F. et al. The carbon footprint of global tourism. Nature Climate Change, 2018.
Two major trends seem to appear in future scenarios of the tourism sector: Digitalisation and sustainability. Regarding sustainable tourism, national and regional tourism agencies can promote emerging destinations, less overcrowded spots or nature-based locations, in order to better distribute travel flows, reduce environmental pressures and generate jobs in less-travelled areas or hinterlands.
They can also integrate local communities in the tourism planning and policy process; support sustainable activities based on biodiversity or cultural values; guarantee social rights, adequate salaries and training programs for workers.
The integration of Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) in the blue economy sectors such as coastal and maritime tourism is a clear framework to align socio-economic benefits and environmental protection, increasing local communities’ resilience and ensuring long term sustainability.
Tour operators and travel agencies may, on their part, reduce the carbon and water footprint of their supply chain, avoid food waste, eliminate single-use plastics, prioritize low-carbon transports, partner with local providers, provide appropriate training and salaries to their working force.
Eco-union (2020). Towards a Blue Solidarity Economy.
On the digitalisation of tourism, storytelling tools allow for personalized, valuable experiences that can shun mass tourism and favor the protection of the environment. Contactless technologies, biometrics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are part of this trend.
Moreover, digitalisation, as well as reskilling and upskilling tourism workers can create better jobs. Investing in the human capital locally is generally the best way to sustain a balance between quality tourism and environmental sustainability. Albeit very difficult in practice, policy makers and implementers should ensure workers or communities are not left behind this transition. To remedy that, public authorities have to keep up their investment in digital competences.
Additionally, digitalisation allows the means to better inform decision makers in their decision-making by sharing real-time information and best practices widely available.
In Italy, during the lockdown, virtual tours and cooking classes were organised by popular VIP chefs, at a time when the real-life experience was impossible.
Museums and heritage sites all around the world held virtual exhibitions. At the European Union level, the online platform Europeana stepped up its accessibility drive in favour of the dissemination of cultural artefacts.
In the second quarter of 2020, the application Cultural Gems launched an initiative encouraging proximity tourism: this allows people who generally face difficulties in experiencing cultural exhibits in person because of physical or financial obstacles to do so digitally.
In Essaouira in Morocco, a digital communication campaign and its attached mobile application promoted important cultural and historical landmarks and sites. In Marrakech, digitalisation process were accompanied by the lowering of lodging prices aimed at attracting domestic tourists.
Interestingly, and ironically, this digitalisation process of touristic locations may deepen inequality for remote places that are unconnected or, conversely, stimulate travel flows that may put in danger fragile environmental or cultural sites.
The European Commission had already been working on a Green New Deal for the European Union before the coronavirus pandemic struck. It aimed to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. The recovery and stimulus measures included €225 billion (US$190 billion) in recovery funds and €322 billion (US$280 billion) for the 2021–2027 budget.
In parallel, the European Commission launched its Farm to Fork strategy. It aims at reforming the food system sustainably. It includes clauses on the reduction of the use of fertilizers and pesticides, which are direct causes of water and marine pollution in the tourism sector.
Furthermore, the European Parliament promoted an Ocean Fund. It aims at making ships more energy efficient and supporting green infrastructure implementation in the maritime sector. The targeted period for implementation is 2023 to 2030, providing up to €2.5 billion ($2.7 billion), over the first five years.
European Parliament (2020). Parliament says shipping industry must contribute to climate neutrality.
UNEP/MAP (2016). Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development 2016-25.
At the Mediterranean level, the Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP) of the Barcelona Convention for the protection of the Mediterranean Sea, ratified by 22 Mediterranean riparian countries, endorsed in 2016 a Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development (MSSD). This regional strategy integrates sustainable tourism as a strategic objective to be reached by 2025. However, the rather limited mandate of the Barcelona Convention towards environmental issues blocks any significant progress on this cross-sectorial issue.
Furthermore, a proposal to develop a Regional sustainable tourism framework has been slow in making progress. This in spite of the fact that the tourism sector is included in the Sustainable Consumption and Production Regional Action Plan (SCP RAP) to be implemented by Southern Mediterranean countries by 2026, with rather limited impact so far.
Among other regional initiatives targeting the tourism sector, the European Union (EU) launched the West Med initiative to promote a more sustainable blue economy in Western Mediterranean countries.
It integrates coastal and marine tourism, sharing Southern and Northern best practices such as the Interreg Med Tourism project. The Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) is operating the Blue Economy platform. It is organises a regularly held stakeholders conference to engage policy and decision makers as well as practitioners and researchers.
www.westmed-initiative.eu https://sustainable-tourism.interreg-med.eu/ https://medblueconomyplatform.org/
Arguably, the projects, policies and initiatives mentioned above are valuable and contribute, in various ways, to sustainable tourism in the Mediterranean. However, they are in general lacking a structured and robust governance system at regional level. Such measures, were they in place, could ensure the necessary social and environmental transformation of the tourism sector.
Tourism is a globalised yet fragmented industry that needs to be monitored, managed and regulated at various space, time and geographic scales. The slides overleaf illustrate the variety of stakeholders and their roles and relations.
Eco-union (2019). Towards a Sustainable Blue Tourism
The involvement of the private sector, financial actors, academic world and civil society organisations is critical to implement significant change and exploit the possibilities accruing from the recovery and resilience plans. All of these measures should be multi-fold, involving various actors and benefitting in many ways the environmental, social and economic environment. This approach is highlighted by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy and described in the next slides.
As illustrated in the next slide, four scenarios have been explored related to the evolution of Global Tourism in the coming 5-10 years. The basis of the exercise was provided by national policies, business practices and citizen behaviour. As you may observe, each scenarios shows different evolutions in the tourism sector.
These are: Overgrowth, Collapse, Long transition and Deep Transformation – providing diverse threats and/ or opportunities for the tourism sector according to the sustainability criteria and the length of the pandemic crisis.
The quality of Policies, Strategies and Recovery Plans designed and implemented by the countries as well as consumer behaviour, industry evolution and local community engagement seems to reinforce research showing their being critical for the future of global tourism.