A pent-up urge to travel is driving tourist numbers in southern Europe back to pre-pandemic highs. But understaffed resorts and gridlocked airports are frustrating the desire of many holidaymakers for a stress-free break in the sun.

Acute high-season labour shortages caused by an exodus of workers during a virtual shutdown of the industry in 2020, and only a partial recovery last year, are forcing tourism operators in Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal to offer better pay and conditions, raise prices and cut services.

“The era of fast, frequent and cheap holidays is over,” said Cristina Siza Vieira, executive vice-president of the Portuguese Hoteliers Association, adding that workers “are often finding they can earn more in jobs that leave their evenings and weekends free.” Hotel owners on Portugal’s Algarve coast said a lack of staff has forced them to turn down wedding and baptism parties, suspend beach shuttles and spa massages for guests and cut bar and restaurant opening hours.

More than 400,000 tourism industry vacancies need to be filled across the southern eurozone countries, according to estimates by local organisations and trade unions. The staff shortages have stretched many hotels and restaurants to the limit and forced others to close. Tourists flying into southern European resorts are also bearing the brunt of spiralling jet fuel costs and severe disruption at many airports.

Marina Lalli, president of Italy’s National Federation of Travel and Tourism Industries, said labour shortages had become the “number one problem” facing the sector after many workers who were placed on furlough or lost their jobs during the pandemic decided to leave the sector.

People walk next to a restaurant terrace in Malaga, Spain
Staff shortages have stretched many hotels and restaurants to the limit and forced others to close © Jon Nazca/Reuters

Tourism jobs in Europe fell 9.3 per cent in 2020, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, with the outbreak of the Omicron coronavirus variant in late 2021 restricting demand for new employees.

Many have moved into deliveries, ride-sharing, construction, warehousing and other areas less affected by seasonality or the risk of another wave of Covid-19, said Siza Vieira.

The pandemic was 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. Reducing her employees from about 150 to 110 who work five-day weeks, she has managed to avoid serious staff shortages. But many former tourism workers had found “other ways of making a living”, she added.

European travel and tourism spending and employment

Working in tourism can be “really stressful”, said Lalli, with some employees “doing jobs that years ago would have been done by several people”. Many staff returning to the sector wanted to work half shifts and not at night or weekends, she said.

George Valsamis, chief executive of Secret Hotels, a boutique chain on the Greek island of Santorini, has struggled to fill vacancies this season.

“What we are experiencing [with staff shortages] is a result of overtourism. The Greek islands do not have the ability to service so many people,” he said. More than 50,000 of the 250,000 jobs required to staff the country’s hotels remain vacant, according to the Greek Tourism Confederation.

Competition for workers is fierce and normal experience and training requirements are often being waived. Overstretched employees are used to working long shifts seven days a week, but Greek tourist bodies have also highlighted a deterioration in workers’ housing, particularly on holiday islands such as Mykonos and Santorini where the local pool of workers is small and most accommodation is rented out to tourists.

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“We fought through the ‘year zero’ of tourism in 2020 and again in 2021 to help companies survive and prevent job destruction,” said María Frontera, president of the Hoteliers Association of Mallorca, the largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands. “Now we have to address the issues of recruitment, training and retention of talent.”

The pandemic has highlighted longstanding structural imbalances in the sector’s labour market, said Inmaculada Benito, head of tourism at the CEOE, Spain’s main employers’ organisation, including ageing populations. “For every 100 people who retire from the sector, only 80 enter,” she said.

Operators across Europe also complain of labour laws and union rigidities that can, for example, prevent a kitchen worker being transferred to housekeeping.

Officials say peak summer tourist numbers are returning to 2019 levels in most of southern Europe, with holidaymakers undeterred by the impact of soaring inflation. “The wish to travel is strong and tourists are not overly concerned about prices,” said Benito. “This helps lessen the impact of staff shortages on revenue. But reductions in services generally lead to lower prices.”

The industry is pressing governments to ease visa regulations to facilitate the entry of overseas workers, chiefly from Latin America and north Africa. “Europe won’t survive without immigrants,” said Siza Vieira.

The long-term solutions to labour shortages lie in better pay and conditions, training and structured careers, said companies and tourism officials.

José Theotónio, chief executive of Pestana, Portugal’s largest hotel chain with operations in 14 countries, said offering staff health insurance, career progression and training programmes helped the group hire more than 1,000 new workers in Portugal alone this year.

Politicians in countries who depend on tourism have also stressed the need to improve conditions in the sector. “Tourism must be attractive not only to visitors, but also to workers,” Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told industry executives at a conference last month. “This points to better wages and working conditions.”