Summer holidays this year were an ordeal more than an escape

The heat in Europe – along with excessive tourism, service strikes, rising costs and wildfires – added in some cases to less than perfect experiences of being on vacation

Tourists stand in line to catch buses and reach parking lots as they leave the site of Le Mont-Saint-Michel, northwestern France, on July 25. AFP
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Holidays are for immediate enjoyment and lingering memories of great places visited. At least, that’s the idea as we board our planes, take the ferry or set off by road, promising to banish everyday worries for a week or fortnight.

For too many travellers, particularly in Europe, the summer of 2023 has felt more ordeal than escape.

When the time comes for people to share their experiences, showing friends and relatives their snaps and videos, what will the images show? Along with the smiling faces of families on the beach, al fresco dining and sightseeing wonders, souvenirs less positive may intrude.

This year’s holiday season has been marred by the wildfires that have swept parts of Europe and North America, driving tourists out of hotels and campsites as well as householders out of their homes. The tinder-box conditions result from exceptionally hot weather and the kind of drought that also affects water supply. The Greek islands, the Spanish Canaries off West Africa and the Iberian peninsula have suffered along with areas of France, Italy, western Canada and, most deadly of all, Hawaii.

The heat dome originating in the Sahara and lodged over Europe has brought down even higher temperatures, a combination of winds and low rainfall increasing the risk of further outbreaks. Those with holidays planned but seeing horrific television footage of raging fires have agonised over whether to stay at home and risk losing the cost of their trips, or go anyway and potentially run into inconvenience or worse.

Getting there and getting back have, for many, fuelled nightmares, too. Strikes, staff shortages and overcrowded air space have led to cancellations and delays. It is no longer feasible to book flights, ferries and trains and sit back content that all will go smoothly. Disruption occurs when least expected or – in the case of strike threats – exactly when large numbers want to travel. And the cost of tickets has soared despite widespread impressions of deteriorating service and reliability.

On France’s Cote d’Azur, and doubtless elsewhere, reasons for grumpiness appear even after arrival. In restaurants, bars and shops, and for holiday attractions, prices have rocketed. There have never been so many complaints according to Var-Matin, the newspaper serving France’s most popular region outside Paris.

The tray of miniature cakes that seemed delicious and value-for-money at 18 euros last year feels distinctly less reasonable value at 29 euros. An unspectacular main course can be relied upon to knock you back more than 20 euros. A beach restaurant in Cavaliere, near Saint-Tropez, is not alone in charging a minimum of 22 euros for burgers. The mind boggles at the sort of bill clocked up by President Emmanuel Macron when he treated his wife and large extended family to lunch at the excellent but hardly budget-priced restaurant that stands opposite the entrance to the presidential summer retreat, the Fort de Bregancon.

And speaking of the enchanting, glamorous but crushingly expensive Saint-Tropez, remember if trying to book a table at certain chic restaurants that you may be interrogated on your record of spending and even tipping on any previous visit. Callers failing the vetting test are told, ‘’Sorry, we’re fully booked up”.

Discrimination between those likely to splash out, and those looking to minimise costs, is a novel development and the local mayor has denounced the practice. The council has distributed 1,000 stickers enabling disgruntled customers to report abuses to a national anti-fraud agency. In the case of tipping, reported demands for 20 per cent on already inflated bills are also contrary to French tradition. Even well-heeled people of my acquaintance translate the phrase “service included” as “tip included”, which most waiters will say is by no means always the case; accordingly, they leave nothing at all, a few coins or, if particularly satisfied and spending 100 euros or more, the smallest note, five euros.

In nearby Le Lavandou, the small resort where I spend nearly half the year, another issue – not uncommon in French holiday destinations – arises. On the same recent Wednesday evening, three of the most popular cafe/bars were closed.

At the height of the season, it seemed curiously self-defeating. After a slow July for the industry, tourism picked up. Crowded beaches, long traffic jams, shoulder-to shoulder supermarket shopping and parking problems attest to the enduring popularity of the area. Businesses moan that people still come but spend less. But on that Wednesday, every restaurant close by was doing a roaring trade and all three bars, if open, would have profited from sales of tapas and light snacks.

For areas dependent on tourism, a vicious cycle is at play

But proprietors cannot always attract enough seasonal workers to keep their establishments in constant operation at the busiest times. Exploding rental prices in popular resorts have made finding affordable lodgings a struggle on low pay.

For areas dependent on tourism, a vicious cycle is at play. They have come to regard the benefits as essential to their economies but sometimes fail to cope with the influx in a good summer just as they bemoan the absence of visitors in a bad one.

And some places are just too attractive. In Venice and other ports frequented by giant cruise ships, traders grumble that while passengers come ashore in droves, they then make only the most limited purchases. The liners have been banned from the Venice’s historic centre but can still sail through the lagoon, and planned admission charges for day-trippers have been delayed, leaving excess tourism a real problem, straining resources, crowding the narrow bridges and cobbled streets and leading to a Unesco threat to put the city on its endangered heritage list.

Quotas on visitor numbers have been introduced in some locations. In the stunningly beautiful Italian Mediterranean resort of Portofino, the mayor imposes fines on pedestrians causing congestion by failing to keep moving in the busiest spots.

The power of nature, reinforced by climate change, will continue to cause intermittent crises. But over-tourism is also a tough nut to crack. One answer would be to extend the holiday season. Instead of clogging motorways and public transport in July and August, people would plan their stays for quieter months. But school holiday times, and the traditional schedules of many major employers, make that difficult or even impossible except for retired or child-free holidaymakers.

As politicians, tourism officials and environmentalists seek viable solutions, there seems just one certainty in the short term. Even without weather-related disruption, holidaymakers can expect to experience as much exasperation as relaxation. As one Cote d’Azur GP, overwhelmed by harassed Parisians, once told me: “They arrive stressed, they stress while they’re here and they go home stressed.”

Published: August 29, 2023, 4:00 AM