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Vital tourism income has been lost due to Mediterranean summer of wildfires and extreme heat

A woman enters the sea from a beach where wildfires destroyed the woods, at Glystra near the village of Gennadi in the southern part of the Greek island of Rhodes.
A woman enters the sea from a beach where wildfires destroyed the woods, at Glystra near the village of Gennadi in the southern part of the Greek island of Rhodes. Copyright Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP
Copyright Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP
By Ruth Wright with APTN
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Next summer you might be able to claim on your travel insurance if extreme weather affects your holiday.

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Tourists at a seaside hotel on the Greek island of Rhodes snatched up pails of pool water and damp towels as flames approached, rushing to help staff and locals extinguish one of the wildfires threatening Mediterranean locales during recent heatwaves.

The quick team effort meant that “by the time the fire brigade came, most of the fire actually was dealt with,” says Elena Korosteleva from the UK, who was vacationing at the Lindos Memories hotel.

The next morning, some unsettled guests cut their holiday short - but most stayed on as the resort wasn't damaged in the small brush fire outside its grounds.

How is the Mediterranean recovering from the wildfires?

The Greek island known for sparkling beaches and ancient sites is nursing its wounds after 11 days of devastating wildfires in July

After thousands of people were evacuated during the busy summer season, Rhodes is weighing how the crisis will affect its vital tourism sector, which fuels most of its economy and some 20% of Greece's.

It’s the same for other Mediterranean destinations like Italy and Spain, where the tourism sector also is being hit by heatwaves and wildfires. 

Greece, Italy, Algeria and Tunisia combined lost more than 1,350 square kilometers to blazes that affected 120,000 people in late July, according to European Union estimates. And Greece is expecting even more extreme heat in the coming days.

The mayor of Villardeciervos village, in the part of northwestern Spain ravaged by fires last summer, said hikers are still coming.

“Tourism is bound to suffer a bit in the next few years, (whether) we like it or not,” says Rosa María López. “On the hiking trails, there are no trees, and it is very sad to see. … But this area is still highly valued by tourists in spite of everything. We will have to adapt.”

Fires have chased away tourists in hard-hit parts of Greece and Italy. 

Rhodes saw mass cancellations of flights and the trend is similar in Sicily, says Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights at ForwardKeys, a travel data company with access to flight data.

While travel to Greece overall has not been hit too hard, Italy isn't as lucky. Wildfires “have caused a slowdown in bookings for many Italian destinations, even places not close to the fires,” he said, noting a drop for Rome in the last week of July.

Even without the flames, summer heat intensified by climate change can be a turnoff for travelers.

Hoteliers are worried in southeastern Spain’s coastal resort city of Benidorm, a longtime favorite for British and Scandinavian tourists.

“If heat waves were to be repeated every summer, the impact on our economy would be significant,” said Antonio Mayor, chair of the hotel and tourism association in the Valencia region, which includes Benidorm. “Our activity is centered on the three summer months.”

That could mean tourists head north to Scandinavian countries or the United Kingdom instead.

“Record-setting temperatures in European countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain are not scheduled to ease up as we enter August, so it might be considered a much safer option to opt for a stay in northern Europe,” said Tim Hentschel, CEO of digital booking platform HotelPlanner.

The World Meteorological Organisation and the EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service calculated July to be the hottest month on record

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Heat records foreshadow changes ahead as the planet warms, scientists say, including more flooding, longer-burning wildfires and extreme weather events that put people at risk.

How travel insurance is adapting to extreme heat

With that in mind, US-based climate technology startup Sensible Weather is developing travel insurance that would compensate people if extreme heat wrecks their holiday.

It has rolled out 'weather guarantee' coverage to travel companies in the UK, France and the US, which pays travelers if prolonged rain ruins their beach break or there’s no snow for a ski trip.

If it was 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 Fahrenheit) for three hours in the middle of the day and you couldn’t go out and do an activity, we could give you some money back.
Nick Cavanaugh
Sensible Weather

Sensible Weather will soon add a heat cover option “in anticipation of next summer,” founder Nick Cavanaugh says. “People are asking me about it more because they’re thinking about these things more.”

While travellers differ on how hot is too hot, “in the simplest version, if it was 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 Fahrenheit) for three hours in the middle of the day and you couldn’t go out and do an activity, we could give you some money back,” he said.

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How is Rhodes trying to bounce back?

Rhodes had expected foreign arrivals to increase 8-10% over a bumper year in 2022, when about 2.6 million people flew in to the Greek island, mostly from Britain and Germany. 

But after the fires, flight cancellations in the last week of July exceeded all bookings made in the equivalent week in 2019, says Ponti of ForwardKeys.

Manolis Markopoulos, head of the Rhodes hotel association, is optimistic that rebounding arrivals to parts of the island not damaged by flames can salvage much of the projected boost in tourism.

“Every day we're seeing more business,” he said. “By 8-10 August, I think we'll be back to our normal pace at all these resorts," which account for about 90% of the island's 220,000 beds.

In damaged areas, “some brave tour operators have already decided to bring customers from this coming weekend," Markopoulos said. “These areas have a longer road before they return to normality - but they're not even 10% of the (island's) total capacity.”

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New bookings for future travel to Rhodes did take a hit, falling 76% the week of 17 July, when the fires began, over the previous week. For Greece as a whole, they slumped 10%, Ponti says.

While some major British operators briefly canceled all Rhodes flights and holidays - offering refunds to people who’d booked for fire-hit areas - other budget airlines kept offering seats and reported normal travel figures, HotelPlanner’s Hentschel says.

In Germany, leading travel operator TUI is once again offering vacations to all parts of Rhodes after it stopped flying tourists in.

“We would do more damage to the people of Rhodes if no more tourists came now after the forest fires,” TUI CEO Sebastian Ebel told Germany's dpa news agency.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced last week that tourists who had to evacuate during the Rhodes wildfires are welcome back for a free stay in 2024.

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Korosteleva, the Rhodes holidaymaker, said the blazes should motivate action against climate change.

“It makes people aware what we’ve caused to the planet, that this change may not be reversible. So it’s not just about tourism,” said Korosteleva, who heads the University of Warwick’s Institute of Global Sustainable Development. “I think it actually clearly touches upon how we need to start acting now.”

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