Going to Europe this summer? You’re not alone.
By Ceylan Yeginsu, Anna Momigliano and Joe Orovic
Between the time that Aiden Judson and his wife, Laura, picked Sicily as their honeymoon destination and their actual trip in early June, something significant happened: the second season of “The White Lotus.”
The New York couple had imagined a quiet getaway, hiking across the nearby Aeolian Islands and plunging into the crystal turquoise waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, far from crowded Italian beach destinations like Capri and the Amalfi coast.
But then HBO released the second season of its hit show, set mainly in San Domenico Palace, a Four Seasons hotel and former Dominican monastery in the cliff-top town of Taormina. While the luxury hotel may be out of reach for tourists on a budget, the show’s idyllic Sicilian setting made the Italian island one of the most sought-after destinations in 2023.
“When we watched the show, we were so excited, like ‘wow, that’s going to be us,’ and didn’t realize that it would mean everyone and their mom would be going to Sicily this summer,” said Judson, 37, who returned from the island earlier this month. “It was still stunning and we had some special moments, but it was crazy busy with loud and sweaty tourists packed into narrow streets. It made it difficult to feel the Italian charm.”
Sicily isn’t the only European destination bustling with tourists ahead of the peak summer season in July and August. After three years of pandemic restrictions, travelers are flocking to Europe in record numbers, despite high airfares, limited accommodations, sweltering heat and crowded sites.
Among American travelers, Europe is the most popular destination this year, according to Hopper’s “Summer Travel to Europe” report. Demand has already outpaced 2019 levels, according to the report, even as hotel prices surge and airfares are the highest in five years. London; Paris; Rome; Lisbon, Portugal; and Athens, Greece are among the most booked cities on the Hopper travel app, and the Sicilian city of Palermo, which is also featured in “The White Lotus,” is among the top trending destinations.
“We have to make up for the lost time,” said Elizabeth Hughes, 44, an occupational therapist from Chicago, who made a scrapbook of places she wanted to visit in Europe during the height of the pandemic. She is currently in London, starting a four-week itinerary in eight countries, including France, Italy and Greece. “I had to sell my car to pull this off, but if I’m traveling this far, I’m going to see everywhere,” she said.
Demand has been so high that many travel advisers have had to turn away clients looking to book vacations in popular European destinations in July and August because of a lack of availability.
“Two weeks ago I had a last-minute request for Greece and I reached out to my suppliers to see if there was any way to accommodate them. But there was nothing, so, unfortunately, I had to turn down business,” said Abby Lagman, the founder of the Blissful Travel Co., a U.S.-based travel agency.
Lagman has been encouraging her clients wanting to visit European hot spots to postpone to the fall, when there is more availability and fewer crowds.
International tourists aren’t the only ones behind the spring and early summer rebound. This year, most Europeans are planning to travel before August, the busiest vacation month, to get ahead of rising travel costs and extreme weather conditions, according to a survey carried out by the European Travel Commission. Attractions such as the Louvre in Paris and the Vatican in Rome are already teeming with tourists who had to wait an hour or more in line to get inside. Many hotels are already full, according to online booking sites, and cafes and restaurants in popular cities are overflowing.
In June, Italy saw an estimated 8.6% growth in the number of foreign visitors arriving by plane, compared to the same period in 2019 (one of the busiest years ever for Italian tourism), with Americans making up the largest nationality among international visitors, according to the country’s Ministry of Tourism. Italians celebrating a series of national holidays in recent months contributed to the pre-summer frenzy; overall they account for half of the country’s tourists.
Stephanie Geddie, a 36-year-old nurse from Tulsa, Oklahoma, visited Italy with her husband during the shoulder season in late April. She had hoped to dodge the summer crowds, but Florence and Rome were even more packed than they were in the summer of 2008 when Geddie studied in Italy.
She knew the Colosseum would be crowded, but made sure to prebook to avoid waiting in line. But when they actually got in, they could barely move through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. “It was a sea of people and any picture you took had 75 strangers in it,” she said. “It was a bit disheartening.”
Venice, which attracts large numbers of tourists year round, is even more crowded than usual, according to local travel industry members. What has been most striking is that areas outside of tourism hot spots like St. Mark’s Square are now filling up with visitors.
The Croatian city of Dubrovnik, its white ramparts best known as King’s Landing in the HBO show “Game of Thrones,” is another destination that is grappling with the issue of overtourism. In the first five months of 2023 it saw a 46% increase in arrivals compared to the same period last year. It recently surpassed Venice as the most “over-touristed” city in Europe, according to a report published by Holidu, an online vacation home rental agency.
Marija Grazio, a 58-year-old pianist and occasional tour guide, lives next to St. Blaise’s Church within Dubrovnik’s old city walls, one of the most popular tourist areas.
“It’s impossible to create a normal, organized life,” she said, recalling a time two years ago when her mother fell sick, and the emergency services were unable to get to her apartment.
Tourists have also been flocking to the Croatian city of Split and its surroundings, known for its azure shores. The return of crowds means Croatia’s southern Dalmatian coast has restarted its ongoing battle with young and sometimes reckless partygoers. Recent headlines showcase various incursions into local life, from climbing onto public monuments to drunk guests stumbling along cobblestone streets and relieving themselves in public. In response, Split’s City Council has passed a slew of fines. Disorderly behavior — drinking close to schools, climbing on monuments, bathing in fountains, defecating and sleeping in public areas — now carry a 300-euro fine, about $327. Vomiting on public surfaces costs half as much.
Yet despite the issues that overcrowding and reckless behavior can bring to local communities, many people across Europe are happy and relieved to have tourists back.
“The city was so dead and depressing without tourists, the energy was completely off,” said Melissa Cruz, a bag designer and tour guide in Lisbon. “I’ve never seen the streets as full as they are now, the city is completely alive.”
While some tourists have been surprised and frustrated by the crowds, especially those who tried to beat them by coming in the spring or early summer, others are grateful for the opportunity to travel again, with or without throngs of visitors.
“When you visit London, you have to expect crowds at the Tate, or the British Museum or the London Eye,” Hughes, the occupational therapist from Chicago, said, referring to some of the city’s main attractions. “But there’s also a lot of opportunities to find the lesser-known places. It’s a huge city, you just need to budget some time to explore.”