Heat waves are driving tourists in Europe to cooler climes

Like many Parisians, Mathilde Martin fled to the south of France in the summer. But three years ago, a scorching heat wave made her reconsider her trip to the region where she grew up and where her parents live.

“The rising temperatures have been a game changer,” said the 51-year-old teacher, recalling an experience a few summers ago: “We were near Perpignan in the summer and suffered from scorching heat. That week was anything but pleasant. At times it was hard to breathe. My parents, who live in Nice, have repeatedly told me in a worried tone that it hasn’t rained for months.”

Since then, she has chosen to take the train to a cooler spot during the height of summer – this year she is going to walk along the south coast of England – and instead head south in the spring or autumn. “It’s not so hot then and the sea is still warm sometimes. Last year my parents ate in the garden until December. The area is affected by climate change and drought.”

As scorching heatwaves intensify and wildfires become more frequent, Martin is one of many European travellers who have adjusted their holiday plans. Three in four (76%) European travellers are adapting their behaviour to address the climate crisis, according to new research from the European Travel Commission (ETC) shared exclusively with the Guardian.

As extreme weather events put pressure on the minds of travellers and industry professionals, the ETC began surveying respondents this year about how the climate crisis is affecting their travel plans.

A third (33.7%) of Europeans said they avoided destinations where extreme weather conditions were likely, the ETC survey found, with 17.3% saying they did so by avoiding places with extreme temperatures. Just over 16% sought out holiday destinations with more stable weather conditions. Nearly one in 10 (8.5%) said they changed the months they travel, while one in 10 travellers said they were worried about extreme weather.

But alongside these signs of the beginning of a shift, the ETC report, which surveyed people from Germany, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Poland and Austria, still found that July and August are the most popular months to travel between May and October, while warmer destinations – Italy, Spain, France and Greece – all remained top destinations.

A preference for holidays during the “shoulder season” – the months either side of the traditional peak season of July and August – was more evident among British travellers. The latest available data from ABTA – the Travel Association, the trade association for British tour operators and travel agents, suggested that October, May and June are now the most popular months for foreign holidays.

Some travel companies are also reporting increased interest in cooler destinations. Laura Greenman, managing director of Magnetic North Travel, a tour operator specialising in cooler holidays, said enquiries for family holidays from British and Irish customers for summer 2024 had doubled compared to last year. There was also an increase among couples. “Almost all of these customers cite Scandinavia as a reason for choosing it because it is cooler than other European countries in the summer,” Greenman said.

Also in line with this trend, small-group tour operator Intrepid Travel reported a 40% increase in bookings for Scandinavian destinations compared to last year among British customers, according to Hazel McGuire, the company’s managing director for the UK and Ireland. Meanwhile, dangerously high temperatures have meant the company has stopped running walking tours in Spain, Turkey and Portugal in July and August since last year.

Stephen Brown, 38, was among those who swapped the glittering seas of the Mediterranean for rugged northern landscapes. In recent years, Brown, a software engineer in London, has returned to the Scottish Highlands – a decision spurred by the fact that the capital, along with southern Europe, has also been hit by heatwaves in recent years.

“I get enough heat here – we live in a top-floor apartment that gets super hot. I feel traumatised by sitting in my underwear on that 40C day two summers ago. I could feel the heat when I breathed. My escape is that I can go north,” Brown said, adding that the ability to travel without flying has also been a major factor. “As well as being compatible with climate concerns, this has helped me scratch my itch to be active outdoors.”

In addition to hiking, kayaking and biking, Brown often visits areas where local rewilding initiatives are taking place. “It’s great to see work being done to rewild overgrazed and barren landscapes and it makes me feel positive about the future.”

This summer, in addition to the area around Loch Lomond, Brown will travel to Norway for the first time for a week of “fjord hiking and kayaking”.

Eduardo Santander, CEO of the European Travel Commission, said stable weather is essential for travel and tourism. “We recently began surveying European travellers about how they are adapting their plans in response to changing weather patterns. Our findings show that travellers are increasingly aware of extreme weather events and the potential impact they could have on their holidays.

However, these concerns are often short-lived. Travelers may worry after the summer, but often ignore these issues when booking their next summer vacation.

“Looking ahead, we expect that changing weather patterns could impact seasonal tourist flows in Europe. Cooler destinations could become more popular in the summer and travellers could increasingly choose southern Europe for visits in the spring and autumn, avoiding the peak months.”

Related: How the shoulder season became the new popular time for tourists

While Luka Goyarrola’s home of Mallorca is widely regarded as a summer paradise, he will be spending a month in Sweden in mid-August. Heatwaves have been getting worse on the Balearic island, but that’s not the only reason Goyarrola and his girlfriend decide to spend time elsewhere. The locals are paying the price for overtourism, the 36-year-old artist and teacher believes: “I feel lucky and privileged to call it home, [but] it is becoming more and more of an elite destination. The island has become a theme park.”

The couple plan to stay in Stockholm for a month, after Goyarrola’s girlfriend arranged a house swap with a colleague in Sweden. The destination was less important than the chance to get away: “Anywhere else that was a bit cooler and less crowded would have worked.”

“Maybe 10 years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of it – the summer here was great. Before it was easy to beat the heat – you just went into the sea. But now I don’t even think about going to the beach,” Goyarrola said.

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