Interview with Eduardo Santander, Executive Director of the European Travel Commission

1. While it finally seems that we are leaving the pandemic behind, Covid-19 severely impacted the tourism sector, and it seems unlikely that the industry will fully recover in the short term. Is Covid-19 still a source of concern for travellers? What will be the main drivers for the recovery? 

Indeed, we see clear signs that the European tourism sector is steadily recovering from Covid-19 and there is cause for optimism. Helped by the Covid-19 vaccines, as well as destinations’ health protocols and certifications, travellers are now less hesitant about travelling within Europe and from abroad. Covid-19 is finally ebbing as the primary factor influencing consumer travel plans.

The recovery will be driven by strong domestic and intra-European travel. We see that the desire across Europe for travel is undoubtedly strong. With summer approaching, three in four Europeans are eager to take a trip by September. It’s also promising that over half of them plan to visit another European country.

People are finally feeling more at ease and comfortable travelling. Thus, we expect a release of pent-up demand from more risk-averse groups of travellers.  ETC’s data shows that travel intentions for this summer increase with age, rising from 69% among Gen Z to 83% among baby boomers.

Our research also predicts transatlantic travel between the US and Europe to be one of the key drivers of the sector’s recovery. We expect that the share of European travel from the US will return to pre-pandemic levels relatively quickly, and ahead of demand from other long-haul markets, such as Asia-Pacific.

2. Can you describe the impact of the Ukraine invasion on the travel business in Europe, and how do you anticipate it will affect the industry in the months to come? How do you see the Ukraine invasion impacting travellers’ confidence?

First of all, the Ukraine invasion will hit neighbouring countries and those most reliant on Russian and Ukrainian travellers hardest. The impact of the war will mostly hurt destinations in Eastern Europe such as Cyprus, Montenegro, Latvia, Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania, where Russians made up at least 10% of total inbound travel in 2019. Beyond this, Russian tourists tend to be high spenders so an even larger impact will be felt in terms of tourism expenditure in these destinations. Moreover, the impact of the war in Ukraine could affect travel sentiment to Europe from overseas markets, especially to nearby countries.

Aside from the direct effects of reduced travel, the conflict has created other problems for the European travel sector. This conflict has triggered a sharp spike in energy prices, which will directly affect the costs of transportation and tourism services. Other rising costs, such as food, may also erode consumer demand and further impact travel in a range of markets. Additionally, the closure of Russian airspace to most Western European carriers will impact European-Asian air connectivity.

We at ETC keep calling on EU institutions to provide sufficient and timely financial aid and other support to the sector, especially to destinations heavily reliant on tourism from Russia and Ukraine. Following the devastating impact of Covid-19, travel businesses in affected regions cannot sustain another major crisis at their doors.

3. Can you tell us about the European Travel Commission’s priorities and main projects? How do you see the role of the hospitality industry in promoting Europe as a sustainable tourism destination?

ETC’s activities in the past two years have been fully focused on supporting our members in times of crisis and on paving the way toward a more sustainable and resilient travel sector. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been working hard, together with other partners in the EU tourism sector and the European Tourism Manifesto alliance, to push for the restoration of international mobility and harmonise travel rules across Europe. Let me take this opportunity to thank the HOTREC team for great cooperation on this!

At the same time, we have been running marketing campaigns both in Europe and in overseas markets to restore travel confidence and keep Europe at the top of the minds of travellers. This work is crucial now as the borders are finally opening up and long-haul travellers can return to their favourite European destinations.

We also believe that even though triggered by such a dramatic crisis, now is the perfect moment for tourism destinations and businesses to truly embrace more sustainable and ecological practices. Together with our national members, we are transitioning from a market-focused approach to having sustainable tourism at the core of our activities. Our team is currently working on developing ETC Strategy 2030. The upcoming strategy will define how the organisation and its members can contribute to the green and digital transition of European tourism in the coming years, and better support the sector’s recovery following the impacts of the pandemic. This strategy will also be aligned with the EU Transition Pathways for Tourism and the European Green Deal.

4. A message to the European hospitality sector

The hospitality industry is at the forefront of the European tourism transition towards the tourism of tomorrow. We believe that Europe should not be the first destination in tourist numbers and income, but rather the best one in quality and experience we’re offering to our guests.

Europe’s cafes and hotels are the ones meeting the travellers face to face and being the centre of the travel experience. As the travel landscape changes quickly, it will be up to your industry to adapt services and meet new travel demands. This ranges from launching innovative tools to responding to new health & safety demands and implementing more ecological practices.

There are many challenges ahead of us. But, on behalf of ETC, I can assure you that Europe’s national tourism organisations are here to support you in this journey!