Heat waves in Europe are becoming increasingly dangerous. Here’s what that means for travelers

Growing up in Texas, Mary Beth Walsh thought she was used to high temperatures. Her hometown of Dallas, currently in the throes of a persistent heatwave, experiences frequent heat waves.

But when the 21-year-old visited Athens with her friends in mid-June, she was shocked by the “unbearable” 98 Fahrenheit (37 Celsius) heat she faced. “I actually had no idea how much heat was there until we got there, which was quite surprising,” she told CNN.

“I always joke that I have such a high heat tolerance; I will take my sweatshirt to class in August (in the US),” she said.

But the apartment she was staying in had no air conditioning, and the daytime temperatures were too high to explore the city on foot. “Our energy levels were lower than we thought,” she said. “It felt quite unbearable walking in the direct heat.”

Climate crisis-driven sultry summers in Europe are now a reality that many tourists are waking up to. Interest in visiting warmer Mediterranean countries fell in 2023 amid record heatwaves and forest fires, while more temperate destinations are becoming increasingly popular, experts say.

Recent heat-related deaths and disappearances in Greece, including that of British TV personality Michael Mosley, could further fuel this shift north as extreme heat impacts holiday choices.

The extent to which both the travel industry and tourists can adapt to the rising tide of climate impacts is becoming an increasing issue for countries in Southern Europe, many of which rely on tourism to boost their economies.

Night shift

Recent high temperatures have brought the climate crisis into sharp focus for some European holidaymakers.

“The climate crisis that we fear will happen in 10 to 15 years is already happening in some parts of the world. That’s the scary part,” Roo Clark, 28, from Suffolk in eastern England, who is currently living on the Greek island of Skyros with his girlfriend, told CNN.

“Five years ago, me and my friends wouldn’t even have talked about it (climate change), whereas now it’s more of a conversation.”

Authorities in Greece have repeatedly warned tourists not to underestimate the intense heat, especially in the middle of the day. Walking in high temperatures has been a common thread in recent deaths in the country.

According to CNN meteorologists, temperatures in Greece are expected to be between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit (low to mid 30s Celsius) over the next few weeks, a few degrees above the summer average, with the exception of one to two days when rain is forecast, which will keep temperatures down.

Stefanos Sidiropoulos, who runs Greece’s largest travel agency specializing in outdoor activities, said tourists should not jump into activities right away. “For people who come from Northern Europe, or from Canada, places with colder temperatures, it’s more difficult. They need time to adapt to these conditions,” he told CNN.

Sidiropoulos’s travel agency, Trekking Hellas, now offers a number of activities when temperatures are lower, such as at sunrise and sunset. “Or at night, with torches,” he adds.

Addicted to tourism

The impact of climate change on tourists’ holiday destinations could have serious consequences for countries that depend on travellers’ income.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism in Greece contributes almost 38 billion euros ($41 billion) to the country’s overall economy. That is about 20% of the country’s total economy.

In Italy, where heat warning level 3 (the highest warning) has recently been issued for the cities of Rome, Perugia and Palermo, tourism represents 10% of the country’s economy, according to the latest figures. One in eight jobs is related to this sector.

Tourists in southern Europe are advised to acclimatise before undertaking strenuous activities in the heat. – Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

Tourists in southern Europe are advised to acclimatise before undertaking strenuous activities in the heat. – Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

Following the European heatwave in the summer of 2023, which saw thousands of people flee wildfires on the Greek island of Rhodes, there was a 7% increase in concerns about climate change among European travellers, according to the European Travel Commission (ETC), a non-profit organisation responsible for promoting Europe as a travel destination. [AD: Do we have figures? If not, I wouldn’t say sharp and characterise it as anecdotal]

This followed a decline in interest in holiday destinations in the southern Mediterranean between the summers of 2022 and 2023, with cooler destinations such as the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Denmark becoming increasingly attractive, ETC told CNN.

“Travelers are increasingly aware of extreme weather events and their potential impact on their vacations,” Eduardo Santander, CEO of ETC, told CNN, adding that this could lead to more travelers visiting southern Europe in the spring and late fall in the future, rather than during the warmer summer months.

For now, Santander says tourists’ concerns about climate change are typically relatively short-lived. “Travelers worry after the summer, but often forget about these events when they book their next vacation in the spring,” he said.

‘Riddled with bites’

Summer tourism is vital to the economies of some southern European countries. - Amer Ghazzal/ShutterstockSummer tourism is vital to the economies of some southern European countries.  -Amer Ghazzal/Shutterstock

Summer tourism is vital to the economies of some southern European countries. -Amer Ghazzal/Shutterstock

Extreme heat is a consequence of climate change that is affecting tourist attractions across Europe. But there are more.

According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), warmer conditions due to climate change are pushing populations of disease-carrying mosquitoes into new areas in Europe.

Clark, the tourist currently staying on Skyros, said the number of mosquitoes was very high during the heat wave in early June.

“We were absolutely covered in bites. There was no wind and even though we sprayed ourselves, they still found a way,” Clark told CNN. “It was definitely the low winds and the high temperatures that did it.”

One important mosquito species that can spread dengue, chikungunya and Zika viruses is called Aedes albopictusis now established in many European countries, including Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, according to ECDC.

Andrea Ammon, director of ECDC, said travel could contribute to the expansion of the species’ range. “Increased international travel from dengue-endemic countries will also increase the risk of imported cases,” she said in a statement.

Last year, the ECDC recorded 130 locally acquired cases of dengue in Europe, compared to 71 cases in 2022.

There have been no locally acquired cases of dengue in Europe so far this summer, the ECDC told CNN, but based on previous summer trends, they expect the first cases to be reported in the coming weeks.

One human case of West Nile virus infection spread by indigenous people Culex pipiens mosquito, was reported in March in the Spanish province of Seville, ECDC said. Last year, the agency recorded 713 locally acquired human cases of West Nile virus infection in nine EU countries, resulting in 67 deaths.

Adapting to the ‘new normal’

Authorities in Greece have warned visitors not to underestimate the heat. - Hilary Swift/Bloomberg/Getty ImagesAuthorities in Greece have warned visitors not to underestimate the heat. - Hilary Swift/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Authorities in Greece have warned visitors not to underestimate the heat. -Hilary Swift/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Last summer’s record temperatures around the world were caused by a mix of human-caused climate change and the return of the natural phenomenon El Niño, which brings warmer temperatures to the planet.

This combination caused temperatures in parts of Europe, the fastest-warming continent, to rise to record highs.

But even if the impact of El Niño subsides, experts say the long-term trend of global warming will continue. “Climate change is making more extreme events more common and subsequently more severe,” Rebecca Carter, director of climate adaptation and resilience at the World Resources Institute, told CNN.

She added that high tourist numbers in some regions of Europe are putting a strain on already stretched local authorities as they combine the need to protect residents from the heat and protect visitors.

Carter said the travel industry must take climate adaptation into account. “I don’t think the travel industry is thinking about it as much as it should,” she said, adding that booking rules could be made more flexible for things like flights and hotels.

“When people plan these trips, it happens weeks or months in advance and you can’t predict when there will be extreme heat in a specific place.”

Some tourists, such as parents of school-age children, have less flexibility in determining travel plans, Carter said. In these circumstances, she said, planning was key: “What would you do if there was an extreme heat wave and the power went out? Can you map out in advance where you would go for help?”

Trekking Hellas’s Sidiropoulos agreed that planning ahead was important, but he wanted visitors to still be able to get outside and enjoy the beauty of Greek culture and nature.

“I always tell people who travel, ‘Don’t stay in your hotel and just do the classic things, like going to a restaurant,’” he said. “You have the opportunity to see nature… and to see the authentic side of our country.”

For more CNN news and newsletters, create an account at CNN.com

Leave a Comment