Comment: Do wildfires threaten tourism to the Med?

Tui chief Sebastian Ebel said the fires did not threaten tourism to the Mediterranean this week. The media reported otherwise. Ian Taylor reports

The recent wildfires on Rhodes dominated the Tui Group media briefing when the company reported its third-quarter results for the three months to June on Wednesday (August 9).

That is understandable. The fires led the broadcast news for several days in late July with images of holidaymakers sleeping rough juxtaposed with firefighters battling the flames.

Allied to the heatwave burning up the Mediterranean and exacerbated by the current El Nino climate pattern, this was confirmation of the growing climate crisis and the impacts it threatens to have on the most-popular summer destinations.

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Tui chief executive Sebastian Ebel acknowledged the wildfire emergency, noting it would cost the group €25 million to cover the repatriation flights for some customers and refunds or re-bookings for others.

But he was at pains to point out that most Tui customers on Rhodes had been unaffected and that a majority of those who were had chosen to continue their holiday when moved to a different hotel.

Tui had 39,000 clients on Rhodes at the time, of whom 8,000 were affected – roughly one in five.

Ebel was asked several times about the likely impact of the fires on holiday-taking trends – would they discourage holidaymakers from going to such hot spots in July and August?

Asked whether there was a threat to Tui’s business around the Mediterranean, he responded: “No. It gives us more opportunities for growth.”

He did acknowledge “there will be changes” to when some holidaymakers travel, suggesting: “The season will be longer. It will start earlier and end later. Maybe we should open [it] until Christmas.

“Other destinations will become stronger, like the Canary Islands or Portugal, and we’ll focus on new destinations like the Nordics, Belgium or Holland.”

Yet he qualified this latter remark, noting: “There is a huge price difference if you go to Norway or if you go to Turkey.”

Turkey holds a huge price advantage over most leading destinations in Europe, of course, because of its rampant inflation and devaluing currency.

However, the way Ebel framed his remarks was not how they were reported. The next day The Times front page reported: “Holidaymakers ‘will swap Med for Belgium’.”

The business newspaper the Financial Times followed suit on its front page: “Holiday heat: Tui boss sold on Belgium.”

Strangely, The Times’ coverage continued inside under the headline “Belgium may be next tourist hot spot” alongside a competing headline declaring: “Britons race to salvage summer with last-minute trips to the sun.”

Travel is nothing if not volatile.

But interestingly, Ebel had prefaced his response on the wildfires by insisting: “There was a huge discrepancy between what was in the media and what was happening on Rhodes. The climate was not as described. I was there. I went there the first day and hardly saw an area affected.”

He told the journalists: “The media is often exaggerating and that does not help.”

None of the media reports I read noted this aspect of his remarks.

That is not to suggest that reports of the wildfires were necessarily exaggerated. It’s difficult to judge. The people in a position to judge would be those inhabiting Rhodes and monitoring its climate and the impacts year round.

Ebel suggested: “In Greece, there have been less fires [this year] than previously, but they affected the tourist areas.”

That may well be true.

One would hope the authorities in regions prone to wildfires take precautions to minimise the risks and maximise the response to fires. But there has been local criticism of both the fire prevention efforts and firefighting resources on Rhodes.

The authorities in Greece reported at least 667 fires in July and suggested most were started “by human hand”.

There is a rotten history of fires being started deliberately to clear land for property development – and not just in Greece – and a summer heatwave provides convenient cover.

But it has also been reported that the area burned by wildfires in Greece up to July this year was almost two and a half times the average for the time of year.

The awful reality is the wildfires on Rhodes and now in Portugal and Hawaii are what we should expect to see more of – more frequent, more extensive and wilder – regardless of the cause of ignition in any instance.

Exaggerating the impact is certainly not helpful. But neither is downplaying the underlying reality.

We are in the early stages of a process of intensifying global heating which will only accelerate and the impacts become more extreme and undeniable.

Worse, the process is unlikely to be linear but to proceed at a rate few of us now appreciate.

We all have to live with that, but the implications for travel and the destinations the industry depends on are profound.

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