Travel in transition: aviation’s role in shaping the future of tourism

Eduardo Santander

Eduardo Santander, Executive Director, European Travel Commission (ETC), reports on how Europe’s airline passengers are driving many of the changes in the industry’s key priorities.

Europe would not be the same without tourism. As of 2022, the sector accounted for 8.3% of Europe’s gross domestic product (GDP) and provided 34.7 million Europeans with jobs. Tourism is a complex ecosystem intersecting with countless other industries, from transport to retail. Even for those who do not work in the industry, the presence of tourists in one’s hometown or city supports local businesses, enlivens the cultural scene and promotes cross-cultural understanding. For every euro generated by tourism, an additional 56 cents of added value trickles down to other industries. Investing in tourism therefore means investing in the long-term well-being of communities and small businesses across Europe.

Aviation is vital for the prosperity of European tourism; the travel sector simply could not exist without it. Though rail and bus transport are growing in popularity, flying remains by far the most favoured means of transport for international tourism in Europe. According to Eurostat, 46.5% of all intra-European foreign trips were taken by plane in 2022. This is especially important for remote or island destinations, many of which rely far more on tourism for their local economies than their urban, inland counterparts.

The tourism industry does not just rely on aviation for connectivity, but also for Europe’s image as a destination. Our continent is crisscrossed by an extensive network of airports, allowing travellers to discover the diversity of cultures, landscapes and attractions that makes Europe so exciting to explore. This is an important element for promoting Brand Europe to long-haul travellers, who typically stay longer and spend more money than intra-European and domestic tourists. Our latest research shows that visitors from outside Europe plan to visit multiple countries during their trip, with air travel being the most common method of transport across borders. This means that aviation is central to preserving Europe’s reputation as an accessible and convenient destination for widespread exploration.

Despite aviation’s pivotal role, the industry is facing challenges in Europe. Travellers are increasingly conscious of their carbon footprint. According to a study published in 2023 by the Visa Economic Empowerment Institute, 29% of surveyed travellers have already tried to use less carbon-intensive modes of transport in the last two years, and a further 34% plan to do so for their trips in the next 12 months. Though air transport remains the most popular choice for intra-European travel, an increasing number of tourists are choosing to travel by train. The rail industry is capitalising heavily on this trend, establishing more services, including sleeper trains, each year.

As is so often the case in the tourism industry, it is guests, not governments, who provide the impetus for change. Public scrutiny of the aviation industry’s carbon footprint has created growing pressure for greener alternatives to traditional flying. Some inspiring progress has been made in creating more sustainable aviation technology. We warmly applaud recent advancements in this area, including Jet2's investment in fuel-efficient planes, SAS's plans to launch electric air transport for short trips, and Virgin's inaugural trans-Atlantic flight with sustainable fuels.

Despite growing industry focus on lower-carbon transportation, there is still a sizable value-action gap. This rift cannot be filled by the private sector alone, but also requires governmental and inter-governmental intervention. The European Travel Commission is pleased to see that progress is being made on this front, as initiatives such as the carbon offsetting and reduction scheme CORSIA and the EU’s decarbonisation legislation RefuelEU will go a long way in lowering the industry’s carbon footprint.

Striking a balance between rising demand for travel and reducing environmental concerns poses significant challenges. Aviation’s public perception as an unsustainable industry is a growing issue, and a complete transition to green fuels and technologies is still many years away. In the short term, the air transport sector should invest in multimodal travel, coordinating with partners in the rail and bus industries. This would streamline the consumer’s ability to pair their flight with a lower-carbon mode of transportation so travellers can sustainably reach their final destination without having to forgo flying altogether. The tourism sector is eagerly anticipating legislation from the European Commission to facilitate multi-modal travel, and is counting on the aviation industry to support this necessary step.

"The Single European Sky is a pivotal step aimed at optimising air traffic management. By creating a unified airspace, the EU can reduce congestion, enhance safety and minimise the environmental damage of flying."

Notwithstanding sustainability concerns, the experience of air travel has become more cumbersome for tourists in recent years. In an era dominated by technological convenience, there is an increasing expectation for a smoother travel experience. However, delays, bottlenecks and cancellations persist, creating a negative experience for travellers. Public and private aviation actors must invest in embracing digital solutions and streamlining processes to enhance the overall experience for tourists and business travellers alike.

Some notable developments are expected in 2024. The introduction of the Entry-Exit System in European airports should speed up processing times for non-EU arrivals once the new systems are bedded in. The same can be said for the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) which is expected to come into play in Spring 2025. As the entry points to Europe, airports underline extra-European travellers’ first impressions of our continent. It is therefore crucial for Brand Europe that the new arrival systems enter operation as quickly and with as little disruption as possible. The tourism sector is counting on EU aviation and border security authorities, as well as the broader air transport industry, to ensure a smooth transition.

But even with new digital strategies to make arrivals more efficient, human-derived concerns such as strikes and personnel shortages cannot be solved as easily. In 2022 and 2023, many airlines were forced to run reduced schedules due to a lack of workforce, resulting in widespread delays and cancellations. Moreover, the summer of 2023 was marked by industrial action all over Europe, leading to disruptions at peak tourism season. Though there was a slight improvement in flight punctuality in 2023 compared to 2022, the average delay per flight on arrival in July 2023 was still 22.5 minutes.

Most holidays to and within Europe begin with a flight. This means that cancellations and delays are not just a concern for the aviation industry, but trickle down to affect the entire tourism supply chain. Though it might not be immediately obvious, a lack of baggage handlers in Berlin could impact a small business in Greece, just as an air traffic control strike in France could leave a family-run hotel in Ireland empty for the night.

Increased integration of European airspace could help to solve some of these problems. The Single European Sky is a pivotal step aimed at optimising air traffic management. By creating a unified airspace, the EU can reduce congestion, enhance safety and minimise the environmental damage of flying.

This would also lessen the impacts of strikes and labour shortages as it would allow airlines to more easily change their routes to avoid affected areas. The European Travel Commission strongly supports this goal and hopes that a single European airspace will soon become a reality.

Through its indispensable role in European tourism, aviation is crucial for the economic, cultural and social development of the EU. Today, the air transport and tourism sectors stand side-by-side at a crossroads: we must undergo the challenges of the climate and digital transitions to build a travel ecosystem that works for people and the planet.

There are countless actors in the tourism industry working tirelessly to green our industry. At the European Travel Commission, we recently launched our own Climate Action Plan to guide us to net zero by 2050. We are also using our position as an umbrella organisation of national tourism boards to catalyse close collaboration to drive our industry’s environmental transition. However, no company, government or organisation can do this alone. Tourism is an intricate ecosystem in which every player, including aviation, must work together.

Preserving tourism for future generations will require the aviation sector to lead the way in decarbonisation efforts. There is no future for international tourism without flying, and insular, remote, and coastal destinations that rely most heavily on air transport are often those with the most to lose if tourist flows are disrupted. The path forward requires collaboration, innovation, and a shared commitment to creating a resilient and sustainable future for both the aviation and tourism industries. We need to address these challenges head on to continue offering unparalleled experiences to visitors and solidify Europe’s position as the world’s favourite tourist destination.

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