Labor shortage a headache for Europe's recovering tourism sector

Tourists are flocking back to popular destinations across Europe as peak travel season heats up, only to find businesses largely unprepared because of a severe shortage of workers.

Tourists are flocking back to popular destinations across Europe as peak travel season heats up, only to find businesses largely unprepared because of a severe shortage of workers, a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Strong start in 2022

With travel resumption in full swing, airlines are ramping up flight capacity to meet the surge in demand, according to an analysis published by global travel data provider Official Aviation Guide.

The analysis showed that scheduled airline capacity from western European airports was up 29 percent in March from February. April saw a 24 percent increase compared to March, and May saw a further 14 percent increase from April.

British think tank Oxford Economics is also optimistic about the recovery of the European tourism sector, saying it continues to shine bright despite headwinds to the eurozone economy.

For households, pent-up demand for travel after two years of pandemic seems to be trumping the cost-of-living crisis, the think tank said, adding that in a context of gloomy consumer sentiment, households are "prioritising holiday spending at the expense of other expenditure."

Malta, a popular tourist destination in the Mediterranean Sea, expects to attract 80 percent of the record 2.7 million arrivals it registered in 2019. Bookings have picked up greatly since the pandemic eased its grip, but tourist facilities operators are now struggling to recruit staff.

"Malta went from a longer than usual winter straight into a hot summer and skipped the spring. It seems that the tourism industry has followed the weather," Tony Zahra, president of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, told Xinhua.

He said that while the rebound was expected, its strength "has caught the industry by surprise."

Greece's tourism sector, a vital pillar of the country's economy for decades, has been forecast to recover and reach the 2019 pre-pandemic record levels this year by local officials and industry experts. Revenues from tourism soared 342 percent in the first three months of 2022 compared with the same period the previous year, Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias said recently.

According to the Croatian National Tourist Board, the country logged 2.9 million tourist arrivals in the first five months of 2022, up 175 percent year on year.

"We are at about 90 percent of the traffic from the record-breaking and pre-pandemic year of 2019, and we can expect a very good high season," Damir Kresic, director of Croatia's Institute for Tourism, told Xinhua. "Due to rising prices, I believe that Croatia will earn more this year from the tourism industry than it has ever earned."

Slovenia's tourist market has also witnessed a strong recovery. The number of tourist overnight stays in the first four months of 2022 was eight times higher than in the same period of 2021, the country's statistical office reported in May.

Staffing challenge

While operators across Europe applaud the return of tourists, they also find themselves saddled with a severe staff shortage. The main reasons include furloughed staff finding work elsewhere and relatively low wages in the sector.

"Given that the industry was running at just about idling speed, only necessary staff were retained," Zahra said. "Now, we have an industry at practically full capacity and revving up the staff complement to service this demand - this is proving a challenge for everyone."

Philokypros Roussounides, director general of the Cyprus Hotel Association, told Xinhua that the country's tourism sector is short of 5,000 workers, or 20 percent of its total needs, adding that qualified workers were not easy to find, with new hires requiring extensive training.

Kresic told Xinhua that his country has been struggling with labor shortages for several years. The wages offered were still far too low to attract people to the sector.

According to a recent study conducted by the Research Institute of the Greek Tourism Confederation, 22 to 24 percent of the job positions in the country's hotels were not filled last year.

At main European airports, such as in Spain, France and Britain, staff shortages are causing chaos, delays and missed flights.

Some restaurants and hotels lost throngs of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic when they were forced to close for several months amid a general lockdown. Many of those employees have since found jobs in other sectors and no longer work in tourism.

A research briefing published on May 12 by the House of Commons, the lower house of the British parliament, showed that from December 2021 to February 2022, there were 166,000 job vacancies in the country's hospitality sector, equalling 7.8 percent of all jobs. Labor shortages are reportedly worse in London and regional tourism hubs.

Higher pay

Many operators of tourist facilities are now trying to lure back workers with higher pay.

Herman Mallia, who runs a restaurant on Malta's Gozo Island, said he will pay his staff up to 12 euros (US$12.6) an hour this summer against 7 euros last year.

"I am eating away at my profits, but I prefer that to having a restaurant packed with people and everyone complaining about the dismal service they were receiving here," he told Xinhua.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive officer of UKHospitality, an industry trade organization, said that while pressure is mounting on businesses to increase wages, they remain mired in debt accumulated during the pandemic.

That period, she said, was a "reset moment" for the industry to reassess its working conditions, and training and skills development practices.

"In general, for the whole hotel, we are recruiting every day, and no day passes without us meeting new potential hires signing new employment contracts," said Peter Hogh Pedersen, managing director of Villa Copenhagen hotel in Denmark's capital Copenhagen.

Pedersen said that his hotel now employs people of around 40 nationalities. "When the Chinese tourists return, we will need Chinese-speaking front desk officers."

He expects the Danish government to act quickly and lower the bar for work permits in order to attract more staff from abroad. However, he did not expect a quick solution as demand for workers has long exceeded supply.

The Danish Chamber of Commerce has suggested that all available labor resources be utilized to the greatest extent possible and the unemployment benefit be reduced to encourage more people to work.

Croatia's tourism companies have started investing more to attract employees. They offer seasonal workers accommodation free of charge and other benefits, Kresic said, adding that the state is subsidizing seasonal workers even during non-working months.

Kresic noted that wages have increased by around 30 percent, while accommodation costs rose 80 percent.

"Obviously, this is not enough," Kresic said, "wages in the tourism industry are still too low."

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