Sunday 21 January 2018

Holiday hell: Queues, protests and heatwave 'Lucifer'

In southern Europe, 2017's been a summer of soaring temperatures and travel delays due to security checks and airport strikes. Now, holidaymakers are facing an increasingly militant anti-tourism backlash.

A protesters carry a banner that reads,
A protesters carry a banner that reads, "Barcelona: Tourist welcome, locals not welcome" during a demonstration in Barcelona on June 10, 2017 against what they claim is a lack of control by the city's tourism management. Photo: AFP
Paris' Orly airport. Photo: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
Passengers queue at Barcelona's El Prat airport as security agents strike on August 4, 2017, in Barcelona.
Tourist boom: Sunbathers on Playa de Palma beach in Majorca, Spain.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

In Ireland we can only dream of sunny weather, but across southern Europe they now see it as a satanic curse. The devilish heatwave that has hit the continent over the past fortnight has been dubbed 'Lucifer', with temperatures soaring above 40°C.

The searing heat has caused drought, wild fires, crop failures, and increases in hospital admissions. In parts of Eastern Europe, the searing heat has even buckled train tracks.

It is fine for holidaymakers if they are on a beach or next to a pool, but when they are stuck in endless queues in airports, tempers are bound to fray.

In some countries, the weather has been so hot that authorities have cut working hours and advised people to stay indoors and avoid alcohol. In Serbia, householders without air conditioning were told to put wet towels on their windows.

The Maynooth University climatologist Professor John Sweeney tells Review that this hottest spell to hit Europe since 2003.

"There are estimates that during that heatwave, up to 75,000 died prematurely," says Prof Sweeney.

Passengers queue at Barcelona's El Prat airport as security agents strike on August 4, 2017, in Barcelona.
Passengers queue at Barcelona's El Prat airport as security agents strike on August 4, 2017, in Barcelona.

Perhaps the creepiest climate-related story of the summer is the discovery of bodies in the Alps as a result of melting glaciers. The bodies of a Swiss couple who vanished 75 years ago in the mountains were found at the edge of a glacier.

Now police predicted that hundreds of bodies that have gone missing over the decades could be discovered as higher temperatures cause the retreat of the ice.

Sunseekers travelling abroad from Ireland may not complain about the heat as they escape our own cool summer, but other events across the sunnier parts of Europe have combined to make conditions far from ideal for holidaymakers - and for locals fed-up with living in overcrowded resorts and cities.

MILITANT

There has even been a spate of anti-tourism protests, and these are now threatening to become more militant.

In sweltering heat, increased security checks for airline passengers entering the Schengen area of European countries have meant marathon delays in airports in holiday hotspots.

Tourist boom: Sunbathers on Playa de Palma beach in Majorca, Spain.
Tourist boom: Sunbathers on Playa de Palma beach in Majorca, Spain.

In Barcelona this was exacerbated by a carefully-timed series of one-hour strikes by security staff.

The increased security checks were actually introduced in April, but they have become more noticeable during the busy holiday period.

Eoghan Corry, editor of Travel Extra, says there has been a perfect storm of incidents for holidaymakers in recent days.

"The number of people taking foreign holidays is up 7pc this year. Dublin Airport is coping with record numbers with 100,000 passengers a day, and that inevitably leads to delays.

"Everybody has to have their passport scanned now when they are going through the airport. That has slowed everything, when the capacity is already pushed to the limit."

Most of the delays come when holidaymakers reach their destination airport or are trying to return home. Smaller airports in countries such as Spain and Portugal are often ill-equipped to deal with the crowds.

The Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA) is urging holidaymakers to consider arriving at airports three hours before departure to avoid missing flights.

Paris' Orly airport. Photo: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
Paris' Orly airport. Photo: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

Cormac Meehan, president of the ITAA, says fears about terrorism last winter has seen holidaymakers choosing familiar destinations such as Spain and Portugal, and this has been the cause of some of the logjams.

"Holidaymakers are no longer going to Tunisia or other parts of North Africa, and that has helped to increase the numbers going to Spain."

There is nothing new in airport delays or heatwaves at the peak of the season, but what has alarmed some in the travel trade is the upsurge in anti-tourist sentiment in parts of Spain and Italy, where overcrowding has prompted protests. Most of these demonstrations have been peaceful, but recently they have taken a more angry and militant turn.

When a gang of masked men attacked a tourist bus in Barcelona in recent days, passengers reportedly feared that they were the target of terrorists and their lives were in danger.

They were relieved when the assailants only slashed the bus tyres and daubed graffiti as part of a protest against mass tourism.

The group behind the attack, Arran, has carried out a string of similar protests in Barcelona, Valencia and the Balearic Islands. In Palma, on the island of Majorca, activists smashed windows at a restaurant and set off smoke bombs, before raising a banner declaring: "Tourism is killing Majorca." Five-star hotels in Barcelona have had windows broken, and rental bikes have been left with punctured tyres.

While he does not advocate such militant action, Gerald Hau of the Balearic environmental group GOB tells Review there are many legitimate concerns about the effects of mass tourism.

He says the leading concern in holiday resorts on Majorca and elsewhere is the housing crisis, with the proliferation of apartments for rent to tourists forcing out locals.

"Workers such as nurses find it impossible to come to Majorca to work in the summer, because flats are let out to tourists."

Hau says the arrival of 40 million tourists to the Balearic island every year is also causing severe environmental problems.

"Majorca is so overcrowded in the summer that the sewage plants cannot cope with the population, and sewage is released into the sea. As a result, some of the beaches near Palma have had to close."

At any one time, there might be eight cruise ships in the Majorca capital, disgorging over 20,000 passengers into the centre of the old town.

"It can become so crowded in the centre of Palma that you can barely move," says Hau.

Traffic jams can become chronic, with 60,000 rental cars on the island's road at any one time.

"We are not against tourism, but we have got to the point where it really is not sustainable, and people are getting very annoyed about it at the moment."

IGNORED

Eoghan Corry believes the concerns of local people in some popular European cities have often been ignored as they are forced out of affordable accommodation to make way for tourists in holiday rental flats.

"What you will end up with is historic cities with nobody living in them," says Corry.

Part of the problem is that tourists are changing their favourite style of holiday. The traditional "bucket-and-spade" package holiday, where a family went to a purpose-built hotel or apartment block in a resort for their entire holiday, is in decline.

Now, families may prefer to split their time between an old-fashioned city and a beachside resort, giving up holiday-brochure apartments in favour of spacious flats rented on Airbnb.

Some holidaymakers have found temperatures of over 40°C intolerable. What has made it difficult is that over the past fortnight in some parts of Europe, the temperatures were still above 30°C late at night.

Graham Fry of the Tropical Medicine Bureau in Dublin advises travellers to make sure they drink a lot of water, cover up their skin and to remember the famous line from a song about mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun.

But holidaymakers who find the soaring temperature of over 40°C unbearable may be advised to get used to it.

Prof Sweeney says climate change predictions show that the rocketing temperatures of the 'Lucifer' heatwave may become increasingly common in the coming decades. He predicts that by the end of the century, they will happen every second year.

Who knows? We could even have another heatwave in Ireland one of these years.

@KimBielenberg

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