Europe’s rapid rate of tourism growth looks set to slow down over the course of 2019 as fears of a global economic slowdown and political uncertainty start to bite.

Rather than the 6 percent growth recorded in 2018 — or indeed 8 percent in 2017 — the European Travel Commission (ETC) expects a more modest rise of around 3.5 percent in international tourist arrivals this year.

Given the time of year, it’s difficult to gauge where the continent stands. Most of the countries have only reported numbers for the first few months of the year and should expect to see the bulk of their arrivals over the summer season.

Even so, there are a couple of destinations worth highlighting in the ETC’s European Tourism: Trends & Prospects first-quarter report.

Montenegro — a relatively immature tourism market — leads the pack with an increase of 40.6 percent in international arrivals. Turkey is a long way back in second with more modest growth of 7.4 percent and this follows on from an impressive 2018.

“The European tourism industry has yet again proved popular in early 2019. Strong air connectivity, significant promotional activities and strong demand from Europe’s largest long-haul source markets have all played a key part in delivering this growth,” said Eduardo Santander, executive director of the ETC.

“However, at all times, it is important for us to be conscious of the challenges that lie ahead.”

These include the trade war between China and the United States, political populism in Europe and elsewhere as well as the feeling that the world is due an economic downturn.

Of the 20 markets that have reported figures for 2019, only five have reported a decline. Iceland’s continued cooling — down 4.7 percent between January and March —is probably to be expected given the struggles and subsequent collapse of the country’s second biggest airline, Wow Air. But it’s a remarkable reversal following years of explosive growth.

Ch-Ch-Changes

Earlier this year, Gloria Guevara, president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council, told Skift that she thought that Europe was “losing market share” and in a way that assessment makes total sense. It is a mature market and as Asian and African markets open up, they will gradually take a bigger slice of the tourism pie.

It’s also worth considering whether Europe should be aiming for growth. For places like Montenegro it makes sense but what about in Portugal and Spain? It’s even more important to consider cities like Venice, Amsterdam and Barcelona who are all struggling to deal with mass tourism.

“Every destination needs to consider the long-term implications of tourism in order to ensure that the right balance is achieved between economic growth, environmental impact and social value. Tourism growth can test the boundaries of the environment and the quality of life for the people who live in popular tourism destinations,” said Peter De Wilde, president of the ETC.

The ETC, which is responsible for promoting the continent as a tourist destination, has itself switched its marketing strategy from a volume to a value-based approach in 2019. This approach seems to be catching on across Europe.

Earlier this year, NBTC Holland Marketing, which is responsible for branding and marketing the Netherlands, released the final version of its Perspective 2030 tourism plan, which outlined a new vision for the country.

“If we want to manage the visitor flows and cash in on the opportunities that tourism offers, we have to act now. Instead of promoting the destination, it is time to start managing and developing it,” it said.

The change echoed the view of Frans van der Avert, the now-former CEO of Amsterdam Marketing.

Seemingly wherever you look in Europe there is a tourist board moving away from a volume-based approach. Part of the reason has been the increasingly vocal opposition to tourism in some destinations. Rightly or wrongly locals see city and national governments as putting tourism GDP growth above the lives of the people who live in those places.

Travel Foundation, a UK-based charity released a study entitled “Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism” in March and it shows just how big of an unintended impact tourism can have.

The report called for more openness when it came to assessing the risks tourism destinations and businesses face.

Photo Credit: Visitors at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, a popular tourist site. The country has seen a decline in international arrivals so far this year. Gordon Cheung / Flickr