Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 15 Nov 2016
11 min read

Largely due to its combined natural and cultural attractiveness, Europe is the world's primary tourism destination and tourism generates 10% of EU GDP. New types of tourism and increased frequency of holidays have serious environmental impacts at regional and local level. A damaged environment could undermine tourism in the future.

Responses to sustainability challenges are dispersed across EU legislation and policies, while the evidence base to track progress is still fragmented.


Europe is the world's number one tourist destination. In 2013, France, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and Germany were among the world's top 10 destinations for holidaymakers.[1As a result, in 2010, this industry became a key sector of the European economy, generating over 10% of EU GDP.[2] Thus tourism also contributes to regional and potentially sustainable development, while shaping a European identity and awareness on natural and cultural heritage.

The European Union (EU) aims to promote tourism in order to maintain the region's position as a leading destination, and maximise the industry's contribution to growth and employment.[3] The 2010 European Commission communication, 'Europe, the world's No 1 tourist destination — a new political framework for tourism in Europe', is the most recent general policy reference and establishes main priority actions for the sector.[4]

Figure 1: Components of the tourism system

Components of the tourism system

The tourism industry is composed of many different sectors, including transportagriculture, and energy (Figure 1). Because of this, policy responses to the sustainability challenges[5] are fragmented across large areas of EU legislation.[6] A comprehensive policy reference specifically for tourism does not yet exist.

This policy fragmentation leads to problems of data availability for the sector as a whole, especially with regard to environmental impacts. As a result, the European Commission encourages a coordinated approach for EU initiatives[7] in order to consolidate the whole knowledge base (such as through the European Tourism Indicators system) and to increase sustainable growth (as recalled in the European Commission communication, 'A European Strategy for more Growth and Jobs in Coastal and Maritime Tourism').

Key trends

In recent decades, tourism within Europe has changed greatly in terms of seasonality, forms and frequency of trips. It has also changed in terms of demography and preferred destinations.[8][9] 

Peak periods have traditionally led to high environmental pressures especially in islands, coastal and mountain regions, while new trends are constantly emerging, with tourism taking place throughout the year, during the off-season, or in some cities that experience consistently high levels of visitors. This is due to globalised trends in culture and communication, an internet‐based economy, and the increasing affordability of travel for ever-larger sections of the population.[10Europe has also become the world's largest 'source region' of tourists taking trips elsewhere in the world.[11][12]

Key trends in tourism volume (demand and supply) and intensity[13] at country level

In 2012, within the EU-28, 51.3% of the population[14] made at least one trip of four overnight stays during the year as a tourist.

More than half (57.4%) of the nearly 545 000 accommodation establishments active in 2012 were concentrated in four EU Member States: Italy, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom.

In 2012, Spain was the most common tourism destination for non-residents, followed by Italy and France, which together accounted for 48.7% of the total nights; this needs to be seen in connection with the rapid growth in secondary homes (Box 1). As for tourism intensity in 2012, the Mediterranean destinations of Malta, Cyprus and Croatia, as well as various destinations within Austria were the most popular.[15]

Key trends in tourism density demand and intensity across EU regions[16]

Tourism intensity within a certain destination shows the huge importance of tourism to many of the EU's coastal regions and, even more so, to its islands and most of the Alpine region. In the context of the sustainability of tourism, this relationship can also be seen as an indicator of potential tourism pressure in the 20 top regions[17] that together accounted for 38.6% of the total overnight stays[18] in 2011. 

Also tourism density[19] is particularly concentrated in coastal, mountain, and lake areas, where an increase in building and infrastructure has increased environmental pressure on protected and other natural and semi-natural territories.

Especially in the Mediterranean, tourism infrastructures and activities often have irreversible effects on natural areas rich in biodiversity and results in habitat deterioration for both terrestrial and aquatic plant and animal communities.[20]

Tourism impacts on environment and health

Despite the difficulties of quantifying the real impact of tourism on the environment, any increase in the number of tourists undoubtedly has an impact on environmental variables such as waste generation and energy consumption (in terms of volume and local level).

A tourist consumes 3 or 4 times more water per day than a permanent resident, with non-tourist water use ranging between 100 and 200 litres per person per day across Europe.[21] Necessary investments in the sewage system and wastewater treatment have taken place and have led to Europe's bathing waters being much cleaner today than they were 30 years ago. In 2013 more than 90% of bathing areas were judged as having good water quality.[22]

In Torremolinos (Spain), electricity consumption (of which tourism accounts for about 40%) increased by 160% between 1989 and 2008, while several studies have reported increases in municipal solid waste (MSW) as the seasonal tourist population rises. This has particularly been the case in small islands which are environmentally more vulnerable to the MSW growth and where any negative effects on health may spread more quickly.[23] In Menorca, during the period 1998 to 2010, the daily average of MSW generated in August by tourists is higher than that from residents, while a Maltese resident generates a daily average of 0.68 kg of MSW compared to a daily average 1.25 kg by a tourist in a hotel.[24]

Tourist transport by car causes the largest impacts on air quality[25] whereas air transport accounts for the largest share of tourism-related GHG emissions (80% in 2000) in the EU-25. Rail, coaches and ferries account for almost 20% of all tourism trips, but are responsible for a very small percentage of environmental impacts.[26] The most emission-intense[27] mode of transport per kilometre travelled is cruise ship: direct air emissions of 0.330 kg COper ALB KM[28] have been estimated.[29] Furthermore, most cruises start with flights to reach harbours, adding between 10% and 30% to the total emissions caused by the cruise.[30]

The increasing speed and scale of global human movement[31] has also enhanced opportunities for the spread of disease. In 2011, Europe was the main source of importation for measles into the USA, while several mosquito-transmitted diseases[32] have expanded their range and locally occurred in northern Italy in 2007 and southeast France in 2010.[33]

Response and prospects

Recent EU surveys[34] show that the predominant factors in choosing holidays destinations continue to be the quality of natural features and landscape, especially in coastal areas. That confirms the importance of 'natural capital' for the health of the tourism sector that is becoming more environmentally conscious due to actions, some external, such as progressive policies, fiscal measures, and the highest number of 'green' certification schemes in the world (such as eco-labelling). However, many of these certification schemes are still showing limited effectiveness in terms of cost savings or increased consumers demand. More coherence should be provided across them, while also improving consumer confidence. 

By 2020 the car is still expected to account for the largest share of trips by tourists, while air travel will account for the largest share of kilometres travelled compared to today. Europe will also continue to lead the world in international arrivals, which are expected to increase from 57 per 100 of the population to 89 per 100 in 2010–2030.[35] Globally, air passenger/km are expected to rise from 5 billion to more than 13 billion over the period 2010 to 2030, while intra-Europe travel is projected to remain among the world's top five travel patterns between 2030 and 2040.[36]

Box 1: Environmental impacts from second homes

Rapid growth of second homes during the 1990s increased pressure on the environment, especially in coastal and mountain zones. This caused negative impacts such as land uptake, transportation to and from the homes, wildlife disruption, disposal of human waste and visual pollution.[37][38][39]

High densities of second homes can increase competition between their owners and locals for shared natural resources, resulting in huge pressures on infrastructures such as water supply, sewage, and roads.[40]

However, second homes made out of renovated rural stocks, instead of large scale tourism development, may also positively contribute to local communities.[41]

In Europe many second homes are owned by people resident in other countries. For example, the breakdown of the location of second homes owned abroad by residents of the United Kingdom is 27% in Spain, 26% in France and 23% in the rest of Europe.[42]

Efforts exist to regulate construction of second homes. In Switzerland, with some exceptions, the construction of second homes is banned in areas where they already account for more than 20% of all homes.[43][44]

References and footnotes

[1] France, USA, Spain, China, Italy, Turkey, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russian Federation and Thailand. Accounting for 5% of all international arrivals worldwide, Europe reached 563 million tourist arrivals in 2013, 29 million more than in 2012. UNWTO, Tourism Highlights 2014.

[2] Eurostat, Tourism industries — economic analysis — Statistics Explained, Statistics in focus 32/2013; Author: Christophe DEMUNTER, Krista DIMITRAKOPOULOU. 

[3] The Lisbon Treaty specifically acknowledges the importance of tourism in article 195.

[4] Actions: stimulate competitiveness in the European tourism sector; promote development of sustainable, responsible, high-quality tourism; consolidate Europe's image as a collection of sustainable, high-quality destinations; maximize the potential of EU financial policies for developing tourism.

[5] These challenges mainly concern: 1) energy consumption and supply, water quality, consumption and management, 2) waste production and management, 3) loss of biodiversity from land conversion, over-exploitation of natural resources or introduction of invasive alien species, pollution and disturbance of wildlife, 4) landscape and heritage management.

[6] For example: Water Framework and Marine Strategy Framework Directives, the European Commission proposal for a framework Directive on Maritime spatial planning and integrated coastal management as well as two recent European Commission legislative proposals tackling emissions from recreational watercraft (COM(2011)456 final and COM(2013)18 final).

[7] Such as the Knowledge Networking Portal for Sustainable & Responsible Tourism and the European Destinations of Excellence.

[8] In 2011, people aged over 65 made 29% more trips and 23% more overnight stays than 2006. Their tourism expenditure grew by 33% and accounted for 20% of all tourism spending of Europeans, compared with just 15% in 2006. They made more and longer trips. This group of tourists is expected to grow fast as in 2010, 17% of the population was 65 years old or more and by 2060, this figure is expected to be close to 30%.

[9] Eurostat, C. D. (2013), 'Ageing and tourism in the European Union'.

[10] Alan A. Lew (2008), Long Tail Tourism: New geographies for marketing niche tourism products,, accessed March 13, 2014.

[11] 5 EU Member States are among the top 10 spenders in international tourism in 2013: China, USA, Germany, Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Australia, Italy, Brazil.

[12] World Tourism Organization (2014), Tourism Highlights. 

[13] Tourism intensity is the ratio of nights spent at tourist accommodation establishments relative to the total permanent resident population of the area.

[14] This percentage of the population making such a trip ranged from 10% in Romania to 78.7% in Sweden.

[15] Eurostat (December 2013), Statistics Explained, Tourism trends.

[16] Eurostat (March 2014), Tourism statistics at regional level — Statistics Explained, accessed 20 March 2014.

[17] Among 269 regions of EU-27 for which data are available, this top 20 list included 6 regions in Italy, 5 each in Spain and France, 2 in Germany and 1 each in Austria and the Kingdom: Canarias, Ile de France, Cataluña, Illes Baleares, Veneto, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, Andalucia, Inner London, Rhone-Alpes, Toscana, Emilia-Romagna, Comunidad Valenciana, Languedoc Roussillion, Tirol, Lombardia, Lazio, Aquitaine, Oberbayern, Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano/Bozen, Mecklenburg-Vorpommem. The first six destinations, covering mountain areas and small islands, recorded collectively the highest overnight stays.

[18] 2.44 billion.

[19] Number of beds places per km2.

[20] Plan Bleu, ed. (2012), 'Seaside tourism and urbanisation: environmental impact and land issues', p. 4.

[21] EEA (2009), Water resources across Europe — confronting water scarcity and drought, EEA Report No 2/2009, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen, Denmark.

[22] EEA (2013), European bathing water quality in 2012, EEA Report No 4/2013, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen, Denmark.

[23] WHO (1996), World Health Organization, 1996. Guides for Municipal Solid Waste management in Pacific Island Countries. Healthy cities — Healthy Islands. Document Series, No. 6.

[24] EEA (2013), Municipal Waste in Malta, EEA-ETC SPC Study, 2/2013 European Environment Agency, Copenhagen, Denmark.

[25] NOXPM.

[26] Peeters, P., Szimba, E. and Duijnisveld, M. (2007), 'Major environmental impacts of European tourist transport', Journal of Transport Geography 15(2), pp. 83–93.

[27] Emissions are calculated by multiplying transport distances with averaged emission factors (i.e. averaged amount of CO2 emitted for transporting one person over one kilometer).

[28] Available Lower Berth KM.

[29] Carnival corporation & PLC (2008), 2008 annual report.

[30] Eijgelaar and others (2010), 'Antarctic cruise tourism: the paradoxes of ambassadorship, “last chance tourism” and greenhouse gas emissions'.

[31] Such huge pilgrimages, as the one to the Mecca.

[32] Like those ones caused by the Chikungunya virus. The Chikungunya virus was largely restricted to Africa and Asia until it began to appear on islands in the Indian Ocean in 2005, after an outbreak in Kenya in 2004. From there, it crossed to the Indian subcontinent in 2006, causing outbreaks of major diseases, especially in southern India.

[33] Centers for Disease Control (USA) (2014), 'CDC health information for international travel 2014: the yellow book'.

[34] EC (2014), Flash Eurobarometer, 'Preferences of Europeans towards tourism', Eurostat, Feb 2014.

[35] WTO (2011), World Tourism Organization, 2011, Tourism towards 2030: global overview, World Tourism Organization, Madrid, Spain. 

[36] ICAO (2013), 2013 Environmental Report, accessed 20 March 2014.

[37] EEA (2003), Europe's environment: the third assessment, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen, Denmark.

[38] Hiltunen, M. J. (2004), Second housing in Finland — Perspective of mobility, 13th Nordic Symposium in Tourism and Hospitability, Aalborg, Denmark.

[39] Hall, C. Michael, Dieter K Muller (2004), 'Tourism, Mobility and Second Homes: Between Elite Landscape and Common Ground', Cromwell Press, Great Britain.

[40] Marjavaara, R. (2008), 'Second home tourism, The root to Displacement in Sweden?', Umea University, Sweden.

[41] Gallet, N., Mace, A., Tewder-Jones, M. (2003), 'Dispelling a myth? Second homes in rural Wales', Area 35: 271–284.

[42] United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (2011), The Impact of Globalization on National Accounts, United Nations, New York and Geneva.

[43] Switzerland Dealing With Second Home Ban, World Property Journal (July 2013).

[44] Construction of all new second homes in Switzerland has been banned, (June 2013).

Countries and regions

European Environment Agency (EEA)
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