'Social tourism' may not be a concept that all Europeans are familiar with yet. But it is already a growing phenomenon, which the European Commission has been promoting for both its social and economic benefits. Now the EU is investing in new projects to develop cross-border low-season tourism opportunities. The Calypso initiative aims to open up new horizons for younger and older travellers, disabled people and low-income families, while creating new jobs and business opportunities during quieter times of the year.
Tourism is an important resource for an increasing number of stakeholders across Europe. Already generating over 5% of EU GDP and employing an estimated 12 to 14 million people, forecasts for the industry remain positive, despite the economic crisis. Yet most Europeans still go on holiday during the busy school-holiday periods of summer, Christmas and Easter, leaving hotel and transport capacity underused for much of the rest of the year. This heightened demand at peak periods leads to high prices, which in turn may exclude lower-paid or less-advantaged families and individuals. Leisure travel boosts well-being and broadens the mind - it should not be available only to the physically fit or better-off.
When the European Commission launched, in June 2010, its ambitious new strategy aimed at reinforcing Europe's position as the world's top tourist destination, it highlighted the all-round benefits of extending the tourism season. For the industry, it means better use of resources and higher productivity. For workers in the sector, it brings wider opportunities, greater security and increased motivation. Social tourism also offers the chance to open up new destinations, by creating jobs and stimulating economic revival
The European Commission saw this potential when, following approval by the budgetary authority, it launched the Calypso initiative for 2009-2011. Named after the mythical nymph who hosted the wandering Ulysses on her island, the programme started with an annual budget of €1 million and the task of studying good practices and identifying appropriate mechanisms for social tourism exchanges at European level. It encouraged input from the wider public and was supported by a group of experts.
The June Communication highlighted two specific actions: establishing a voluntary tourist exchange mechanism between Member States to offer easier travel, especially during the low season, to the four target groups; and developing a voluntary online information exchange to help coordinate school holidays in different countries, while respecting cultural traditions. Experience, in the Iberian Peninsula for example, shows that public spending on such mechanisms can bring a profitable return of 50% on the investment, if all the benefits - including job creation and tax revenues - are taken into account.
The first phase of Calypso is already showing results: 21 EU and candidate countries signed up to take part, and a series of workshops has taken place across Europe. The preparatory action set out to study existing measures, examine problems and solutions, and compile an inventory of good practice in Member States. The work programme included stakeholder consultation and dissemination of information materials.
The Calypso study, unveiled in July, presented a range of detailed recommendations. It found that few Member States actively promote cross-border tourism for these target groups, although some help elderly people and families to take holidays in their home country. Spain and Portugal are most advanced in promoting bilateral tourism exchanges, and the results in terms of revenue and employment are promising.
The study went on to examine how the needs of each target group differ. The highest market potential is among senior citizens - already the main focus of existing initiatives. Families are more problematic since opportunities for off-peak travel are limited by school terms. Young people also tend to prefer high-season holidays. However, improving access to holiday destinations for people with disabilities or reduced mobility was identified as a general priority - they have as much right to enjoy travel opportunities as everyone else.
The study found no specific barriers to social tourism in national or EU law. But the industry remains sceptical about whether it can be sufficiently profitable. So far, associations and NGOs are the main drivers, but many of the countries taking part in the study lack national or regional structures to support them. Thus, a major recommendation is for the EU to help develop structures for managing exchanges, building on existing expertise, with a view to expanding this kind of opportunities.
In addition, an online Calypso Platform would help to market social tourism opportunities, but might need to be pitched individually to each target group. As for the countries not yet involved in Calypso, the report identified a generally positive attitude. Reticence arose either from structural barriers, such as those found in decentralised states like Germany, or reservations about the term 'social tourism' per se (in the Nordic countries).
The next step - in line with the study recommendations - is to give practical support to tourism-related public authorities in organising transnational low-season exchanges for the Calypso target groups. Co-funded projects will help public authorities to build Calypso office infrastructures, develop networking and collaborate to promote low-season exchanges, as well as carrying out studies to facilitate social tourism by improving the knowledge base.
This could be followed by the launching of an online Calypso platform which could help market attractive offers in the low season.
A Latvian private tour company developed short package trips to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, aimed at low-income families. In 2008, 800 people from 350 families enjoyed the chance to travel abroad at attractive rates during the school holidays. The company itself made no profit from these packages, and had no public subsidy, but gained a market advantage by getting its name known as an affordable and socially active holiday provider. This model shows that private initiatives can play an important role in stimulating social tourism, the Calypso compendium of good practices [812 KB] suggests.
In France, 18-25-year-olds from poor backgrounds have the lowest rate of travel, after the elderly. At that age, they no longer take part in family holidays and do not have the means to travel independently. The 'Sac Ados' package helps young people to plan and undertake their own expeditions, in France or beyond, and offers holiday and service vouchers, insurance, phone cards, health kits and maps. In 2009, more than 4 200 young people used the scheme, which involves 26 local stakeholders and 450 social structures.
As one of Europe's premier summer destinations, Spain is left with a lot of excess capacity during the off season. To fill some of this capacity and fulfil an important social role, the IMSERSO holiday programme has been sending senior citizens living in Spain on holiday within the country since 1985.
Collaboration has also commenced with INATEL Portugal and transnational exchanges have taken place (around 4 000 senior citizens per year).
One assessment estimated that for every euro the government invests in IMSERSO, the state recovers €1.53.
Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry, European Commission