Europe’s overworked tourism workforce struggles to keep up with rising demand
A pent-up wanderlust is bringing tourist numbers to southern Europe back to pre-pandemic highs. But understaffed resorts and congested airports frustrate many holidaymakers’ desire for a stress-free break in the sun.
Acute peak-season labor shortages caused by an exodus of workers during a virtual industry shutdown in 2020, and only a partial recovery last year, are forcing tourism operators in Spain, Italy , in Greece and Portugal to offer better wages and conditions, higher prices and reduced services.
“The era of quick, frequent and cheap vacations is over,” said Cristina Siza Vieira, executive vice-president of the Portuguese Hoteliers Association, adding that workers “often discover that they can earn more in jobs who leave their evenings and weekends free.” Hotel owners on Portugal’s Algarve coast said a lack of staff had forced them to refuse weddings and christenings, suspend beach shuttles and spa massages for guests and to reduce the opening hours of bars and restaurants.
More than 400,000 vacancies in the tourism industry need to be filled in southern eurozone countries, according to estimates by local organizations and trade unions. Staff shortages have pushed many hotels and restaurants to their limits and forced others to close. Tourists traveling to southern European resorts are also bearing the brunt of soaring jet fuel prices and severe disruptions at many airports.
Marina Lalli, president of Italy’s National Federation of Travel and Tourism Industries, said labor shortages had become the “number one problem” facing the sector after many workers who had been laid off furloughed or had lost their jobs during the pandemic had decided to leave the sector.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism jobs in Europe fell by 9.3% in 2020, with the outbreak of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in late 2021 limiting demand for new employees.
Many have moved into deliveries, carpooling, construction, warehousing and other areas less affected by seasonality or the risk of another wave of Covid-19, Siza Vieira said.
The pandemic has been a “hammer blow” for the tourism sector in Barcelona, said Kate Preston, who was forced to close three of the eight restaurants she ran in the Catalan city. By reducing its employees from around 150 to 110 who work five-day weeks, it has managed to avoid serious staff shortages. But many former tourism workers had found “other ways to earn a living”, she added.
Working in tourism can be “really stressful,” Lalli said, with some employees “doing jobs that years ago would have been done by multiple people.” Many employees returning to the sector wanted to work half-days and not nights or weekends, she said.
George Valsamis, managing director of Secret Hotels, a boutique chain on the Greek island of Santorini, has struggled to fill vacancies this season.
“What we live [with staff shortages] is the result of over-tourism. The Greek islands do not have the capacity to serve so many people,” he said. More than 50,000 of the 250,000 needed hotel staff jobs across the country remain unfilled, according to the Greek Tourism Confederation.
Competition for workers is fierce and normal experience and education requirements are often waived. Overworked employees are used to working long hours seven days a week, but Greek tourism bodies have also pointed to a deterioration in worker accommodation, especially on holiday islands such as Mykonos and Santorini where the local pool of workers is small. and most accommodation is rented. to tourists.
“We fought through year zero for tourism in 2020 and again in 2021 to help businesses survive and prevent job destruction,” said María Frontera, president of the Hoteliers Association of Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands of Spain. “Now we need to address the issues of recruiting, training and retaining talent.”
The pandemic has exposed longstanding structural imbalances in the sector’s labor market, said Inmaculada Benito, head of tourism at CEOE, Spain’s main employers’ organization, including aging populations. “For every 100 people who retire from the industry, only 80 come in,” she said.
Operators across Europe are also complaining about labor laws and union rigidities that can, for example, prevent a kitchen worker from being transferred to housekeeping.
Officials say peak summer tourist numbers are returning to 2019 levels across much of southern Europe as holidaymakers are undeterred by the impact of soaring inflation. “The desire to travel is strong and tourists are not too concerned about prices,” Benito said. “This reduces the impact of staff shortages on revenue. But service reductions usually lead to lower prices.
The industry is lobbying governments to relax visa regulations to facilitate the entry of foreign workers, mainly from Latin America and North Africa. “Europe will not survive without immigrants,” said Siza Vieira.
Long-term solutions to labor shortages lie in better wages and conditions, training and structured careers, businesses and tourism officials said.
José Theotónio, chief executive of Pestana, Portugal’s largest hotel chain with operations in 14 countries, said the offer of staff health insurance, career progression and training programs helped the group to hire more than 1,000 new workers in Portugal alone this year.
Politicians from countries dependent on tourism have also stressed the need to improve conditions in the sector. “Tourism should be attractive not only for visitors, but also for workers,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told industry leaders at a conference last month. “It indicates better wages and working conditions.”