By Ceylan Yeginsu and Christine Chung
It was a year that was to mark the post-pandemic recovery of travel, bringing economic relief to local communities that had been hit hard by the prolonged loss of tourism revenue. Borders fully reopened, pandemic restrictions were lifted and traveler bookings surged, sparking a social media trend called “revenge travel.”
But even as demand in 2023 reached near 2019 levels — with an estimated 975 million tourists traveling internationally between January and September, according to the World Tourism Organization — a series of disasters, upheavals and unparalleled weather events devastated destinations across the globe.
Flooding. Wildfires. Heat waves. Blizzards. In the United States alone, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated 25 separate weather disasters, the largest number of billion-dollar disasters ever recorded. The year also brought prolonged labor strikes, technology glitches, civil unrest and a record number of complaints lodged against U.S. airlines.
Last year “took chaos to a new level,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Atmosphere Research. “It seems that the world is on fire and the travel industry and travelers are affected by all of these disruptions everywhere.”
“The take-home lesson is you can’t just book a trip and forget about it until you are ready to go,” Harteveldt said. “You have to be an informed traveler.”
Here are some of the year’s most disruptive and devastating events for travelers and local residents.
Technological trouble — at least in the United States — seemed to seep over from 2022 into the new year. Just weeks after Southwest Airlines upended holiday vacations for as many as 2 million passengers by canceling thousands of flights in late December 2022, another air travel meltdown struck in early January. This time, a technology system failure at the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily grounded domestic departures nationwide, causing thousands of flights across major airlines to be delayed or canceled. The trouble highlighted the fragile airspace system and renewed calls for greater funding for the FAA.
The breadth of the outage shocked some passengers traveling that day. Jaime Vallejo was flying from Newark, New Jersey, to Ecuador with his wife and three children when he learned that his flight was delayed because of the FAA outage. “That’s the computer system for the whole country, and that’s something that should make you a little nervous,” he said.
As powerful winter storms swept across the western and northern United States, hundreds of thousands of people went without electricity. (In Michigan, outages lasted for days.) Thousands of flights were disrupted. Roads were shut down by freezing rain and heavy snowfall, especially in areas unaccustomed to snow — Portland, Oregon, received nearly 11 inches of snow in one day.
In the Los Angeles area, heavy flooding washed out roads and put most of the San Fernando Valley under a warning. A dangerous combination of hazards — heavy wind, rain and snow — prompted LA County to issue a rare blizzard warning, the first in more than three decades.
Serious damage was widespread along the California coast.
“This was really a threefold disaster,” said Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation. “There were sewage treatment plants failing from San Diego to San Mateo. There was an incredible amount of debris and plastic pollution washed up on the beaches. And there was a ton of coastal erosion and flooding.”
In Europe, strikes organized by transport workers throughout the year peaked in May. The prolonged demonstrations over pay disputes and labor conditions wreaked havoc at airports, train stations and other transit hubs, particularly during holiday periods, at some of the top tourist destinations.
France and England experienced frequent and extensive disruptions to air and train travel, and airports in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands also saw regular strikes, many of them at short notice — making it challenging for travelers to plan or make changes to their itineraries.
Summer travel in 2023 saw the ill-fated combination of bad weather, strong passenger demand and an ongoing shortage of air traffic controllers. In the days before the July 4 holiday period in the United States, travel at airports in the Northeast was disrupted by violent thunderstorms, causing thousands of delays and cancellations across airlines. Carriers such as JetBlue Airways and United Airlines shifted blame to the FAA, citing chronic air traffic controller issues, but United’s woes lingered well past that of other airlines and emphasized operational shortfalls. Passengers were subjected to days of uncertainty and rescheduling frustrations, in what seemed like an unwelcome repeat of Southwest’s meltdown in December.
Canada experienced its worst-ever wildfire season, with fires burning through the largest area of land since official recordings began in 1983. The fires were so severe and widespread that they brought hazy, smoky skies to New York City and parts of Europe and caused unhealthy air quality in many regions in Canada down to the United States’ mid-Atlantic and the South regions. In New York City, air quality was briefly recorded as the worst of an any city in the world.
While a large portion of Canada’s forested areas are sparsely populated, thousands of residents were displaced and travel was restricted across areas in British Columbia and Northwest Territories, slowing down a post-pandemic tourism recovery at the height of the summer season.
“I’ve never seen that level of evacuation in Cree Nation, simultaneous communities all at once,” said Mandy Gull-Masty, grand chief of the Cree Nation in Quebec.
July, Earth’s hottest month on record, saw dramatic weather events in both the United States and Europe, from oppressive heat and warming oceans to an onslaught of flooding and terrifying wildfires.
The soaring and seemingly unrelenting temperatures in southern Europe coincided with the peak summer travel season. It did not deter most international tourists, who, after three years of pandemic restrictions, flocked to popular historical sites despite the hot weather. At the peak of a heat wave in July, several tourists in Athens, Greece, collapsed while waiting in line to enter the Acropolis, prompting the city’s most popular attraction to limit visitor hours to the cooler evening hours. Other sights such as the Colosseum in Rome limited the number of visitors allowed to enter each day to prevent overcrowding.
Multiple wildfires also struck seaside resorts south of Athens and the Greek islands of Corfu, Rhodes and Evia.
“It was like going to sleep in paradise and waking up in hell, and all you could see was flames and black plumes of smoke,” said Gemma Thomson, a 42-year-old sports teacher from London who was evacuated from a resort in Rhodes.
In Sicily, the heat reached 119.8 degrees Fahrenheit, a record high according to the World Meteorological Organization. August was also marred by widespread wildfires and floods across the European continent, with Greece experiencing the largest outbreak of wildfires recorded in the history of the European Union.
Devastating wildfires also hit the United States. On Aug. 8, wildfires raged across the Hawaiian island of Maui, growing rapidly into a fast-moving inferno that leveled the historic town of Lahaina and killed at least 100 people. It was the deadliest blaze to occur in the United States in more than a century. Tourism, which powers the island’s economy, came to an abrupt halt as many locals discouraged visitors to any part of Maui in the wake of the disaster. The state of Hawaii ended all travel restrictions to Maui by early October, but visitors have been slow to return.
Marilyn Clark is a travel agent who specializes in trips to Hawaii and said she had a handful of clients cancel vacations to Maui or rebook to other islands in the immediate aftermath of the fires. And bookings for the December holiday season — typically Maui’s busiest and the period those in the industry have pinned their hopes on — are down.
“The major concern for most potential visitors is that they will not be welcome,” Clark said.
In September, as Morocco was preparing for a post-pandemic tourism boom during its high travel season, it was struck by a powerful 6.8-magnitude earthquake southwest of Marrakech. The quake killed thousands of people, destroyed hundreds of villages and left many travelers in a conundrum over how to respond.
With most of the destruction concentrated in rural areas far from tourism spots, many locals encouraged travelers to visit, arguing that their tourism revenue would help efforts to rebuild areas that were hit the hardest.
“We were extremely worried about mass cancellations and if that happened, it would have added to our wounds from the earthquake,” said Aimad Kamal, a local tour guide. “We are so grateful to everyone who recognized everything our beautiful country has to offer even during a time of tragedy.”
Since war broke out between Israel and Hamas in early October, tensions have spilled over to many parts of the world with demonstrations and other civic unrest.
On Oct. 19, the U.S. State Department issued a rare worldwide travel advisory urging citizens to “exercise increased caution” because of heightened global tensions and the potential for terrorist attacks, demonstrations and violence “against U.S. citizens and interests.” Travel advisories for Israel and Lebanon were also raised to the highest levels, warning citizens not to travel to Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and to reconsider travel to Israel and the West Bank.
The war has led to a steep decline in tourism in the Middle East. Tel Aviv International Airport is in operation, but many airlines have canceled or reduced flights to Israel. Major international airlines, including Lufthansa, had also suspended flights to neighboring countries such as Lebanon. Several major cruise lines canceled all port calls in Israel through next year and pulled their ships out of the region.
Uncertainty for tour operators and other industry professionals in the Middle East is now the norm, with cancellations for existing bookings rampant and future bookings simply not coming in.
Hussein Abdallah, general manager of Lebanon Tours and Travels in Beirut, expressed worries that economic concerns will continue even if the conflict resolves soon.
“I have a team of 30 people that I have to pay them every month without generating any income,” he said.