Once upon a time, European travelers drew up a checklist of top attractions, and spent a lifetime ticking them off. No longer. Today’s tourists travel more frequently, want different things – and, thanks largely to technology – they’re changing Europe for good. For a continent attracting half a billion visitors yearly, it’s a big deal.
Fifty years ago it was rare to visit Paris. “Now people are fed up with highlights like the Eiffel Tower. They want to see other things,” says Bart van Poll, founder of travel site Spotted by Locals.
The travel industry is helping them. Budget airlines like Easyjet and Ryanair are grabbing ever-bigger chunks of the European airline market. To win profits they are “taking slots in slightly lesser-known places,” says futurist Tamar Kasriel. “The canon of places in consideration expanded.”
London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona and others still dominate traditional travel – especially for Americans, for whom Europe represents 35% of foreign travel. England (9%), France (7%), Italy (7%) and Germany (5%) are the most popular destinations for U.S. tourists. Most of them prefer a whistle-stop trip to headline spots, rather than more obscure spots.
Europe welcomes around half a billion visitors each year. Some of its more popular countries have a staggering locals-to-tourists ratio. According to a 2013 poll by the UN World Tourism Organization, France welcomes 126.7% of its population each year; Iceland attracts 210%; Croatia 243% and Austria a whopping 285% of its 8.5 million people.
Back in 2008, when Spotted by Locals was founded, van Poll expected the bigger cities to excel. Not so. “People are more interested in doing ‘other’ city trips, like Sarajevo or Ljubljana,” he says. Low-cost travel has made a trip to Wroclaw, rather than Krakow, attractive.
Social media and travel apps, too, have had a huge impact. “You can go anywhere with your phone and not feel lost,” says Kasriel. “If you go to the Czech Republic, Prague is no more inaccessible than some small town.” TripAdvisor, FourSquare and Yelp’s review-based platforms haven’t just changed the way tourists view a city: they have revolutionalized the way physical locations market themselves to a younger crowd.
Apps like Couchsurfing and Airbnb have brought off-track travel into closer range for Millennials, even in Europe’s biggest and costliest cities. Hotels, meanwhile, have benefited from discount and e-commerce apps such as Roomer Travel, which allow fewer rooms to be left empty.
Apartments, rather than hotels, are “located where people actually live,” says van Poll. “So you go to the supermarkets to get a breakfast or a beer, and you meet more locals.”
“European travel on Airbnb continues to grow at a rapid pace and the majority of trips happening on the platform today are happening in Europe; three years ago they were happening in the US,” an Airbnb spokesperson told Red Herring.
The European Commission has spotted this trend: since 2012 its Destination Europe 2020 campaign has focused on the needs of modern travelers to have more local, unique experiences. Its ‘Tasting Europe’ website throws up dozens of traditional and modern European dishes, while VisitEurope.com features listicles, features and videos of some of the continent’s lesser-known hotspots.
Not everyone is happy. Residents of Europe’s smaller tourist spots complain of being pushed out by cafes, bars and apartments in less-touristy sites that have been swamped by Millennial travelers. “An itinerant, albeit enthusiastic, population, who goes in, takes a look then goes, can quite easily cause resentment,” says Kasriel.
Another factor will be “what the Chinese market is going to do,” she adds. “When people have more disposable income and they aspire to travelling globally, most want to do that traditional tick-box, like Japanese travellers ten years ago – the stop-off trip where you go to Paris, Florence, you take your photo and you move on.