Tourism in the Mediterranean: The New Normal

Guest contribution from Anwar Zibaoui

Von Schirm zu Schirm: Tourismus am der spanischen Küste.

© picture alliance / AA | Burak Akbulut

The tourism sector has been hit hard over the past two years by the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. A return to normalcy is not in sight, as the coronavirus is still not fully under control. Whatever the new normal, with the gradual relaxation of sanitary regulations and reopening of borders, tourists are coming back, especially to southern European vacation destinations: in the first half of 2022, there was an 11.7% growth in European Mediterranean destinations, while the Middle East and Africa saw a 20.8% decline.

Four Mediterranean countries are among the most popular destinations in the world: France, Spain, Italy and Turkey. The Mediterranean is the world's leading tourism destination, accounting for 35% of all international tourist arrivals and 30% of global tourism receipts. It is home to 20% of the world's hotel capacity. There are 10,000 destinations, about 100,000 hotels and about one million restaurants in the 24 Mediterranean countries. Mediterranean tourism also accounts for 13% of Mediterranean countries' exports and 23% of the service sector, employing millions of people.

But the pandemic has exposed numerous weaknesses in the Mediterranean tourism sector, which faces oversupply of hotel capacity, bureaucracy, lack of flexibility and innovation; recurrent economic crises and poor cooperation between all players within the sector. Many countries in the south of the region suffer from political uncertainty and instability. And as their main source of foreign exchange is affected, the economic consequences weigh particularly heavily on these countries, discouraging investors, exacerbating unemployment, and driving young populations to emigrate. Climate change, natural disasters, fires, hurricanes, droughts and limited resources, as well as horrific terrorist attacks, posed major problems for tourism. What happens anywhere in the world dramatically affects the entire tourism sector.

Lessons from the pandemic

The pandemic offers the opportunity to become a turning point for the sector towards a tourism based on sustainability. For this to happen, the entire Mediterranean tourism sector urgently needs support to enable its transformation based on the three pillars of sustainability - economic, environmental and social - with the help of local business and digital innovation. The tourism of the future requires a rethinking of the entire value chain, destinations, businesses and tourists. Community-oriented tourism promotes responsible consumer behavior by fostering deeper cultural exchange and understanding than traditional sun-and-beach tourism. Raising awareness among vacationers is particularly important in this regard, as consumers determine demand and are a powerful driver of change. The average tourist has changed after the pandemic and is generally looking for personal experiences rather than mass tourism. This trend toward individualization is accompanied by higher expectations in terms of quality, hygiene and safety precautions.

In order to continue attracting tourists in the future and ensure the Mediterranean region's leading position in the world, the establishment of a formal body of the Mediterranean tourism industry is necessary. Mediterranean tourism is still an irregular, heterogeneous and fragmented sector. A common forum for the Mediterranean tourism sector could combine voices and represent common interests, share resources, secure prices, negotiate contracts, provide legal support in disputes, and communicate with governments. The goal must be a plan to consolidate the sector for deeper cooperation in the region and coordinate a coherent, modern and efficient Mediterranean tourism market. Only together can the Mediterranean countries realize this goal in the new normal.