Visit Europe — it's your right

BRUSSELS, Belgium — It made headlines this year when the EU declared travel a right.

Now the EU's commissioner for industry and entrepreneurship, Antonio Tajani, who in April also stressed travel as an indicator of quality of life, is making his next move. He wants to ensure that tourists are enjoying their basic rights in one place — the European Union.

He’s not campaigning for London, or a Greek island or the Alps, which all do fine on their own. What Tajani feels is an undertapped market is the EU in its entirety — as the sum of its 27 parts. With tourism the third-largest business in the EU, any effort to promote Europe as a travel destination is well worth an industry commissioner's attention.

Tajani has a 21-point proposal for changing how tourism is viewed, managed, supported and funded at the EU level. Tajani would like European schools to coordinate and stagger their vacations so that tourist seasons stretch for longer periods. He wants countries to establish “exchange programs” among the elderly. He wants to hook up tourism offices from different member states to form networks and share best practices. He suggests an “observatory” to analyze and forecast tourism trends. And he wants the latest high-tech innovations to be made available, with the requisite amount of worker training to keep the gadgets operational.

“The European Commission wants to be the trailblazer,” he said, “working together with member states and regions to breathe new life into this vital sector.”

Tajani's sales job to the rest of the world is made considerably easier by the fact that Europe as a whole already garners the lion’s share of the global tourist market — 40 percent — which accounts for more than 10 percent of the EU’s overall GDP and about 12 percent of its jobs.

“Tourism represents an extraordinary source of wealth,” he said in presenting his proposal. “We may not have much oil, but we can have plenty of tourists and these tourists are goldmines in their own right.”

Another key recommendation would play up the already well-developed “sustainable tourism” sector, even creating a new Michelin-style star of “Qualite Tourisme” to market certain locations more aggressively to environmentally-conscious travelers.

Much of Tajani’s plan hinges on branding, using what he calls the “added value” of the EU to convince travelers that it would be twice or thrice as nice for them if they visit multiple EU countries on the same trip. Americans with their short vacations are an important target for this kind of messaging, but not to be overlooked are the emerging middle classes in China, Russia, India and Brazil, Tajani said. Travel across borders in the EU is already relatively easy thanks to the Schengen accord, which allows travel between 25 European countries upon obtaining a visa for just one.

One potential hitch in Tajani's ambitious plan is the intense competition between countries and their institutions, landmarks and events to draw in every tourist dollar, ruble or rupee landing at Heathrow, Schiphol or Charles de Gaulle airports.

Tom Jenkins of the European Tour Operators Association, or ETOA, is skeptical about Tajani's initiative to market the EU as a package deal.

ETOA’s 450 members, including tour operators and travel agents, have been doing just that since 1989. Jenkins said that “individual nations rightly feel that tourists are attracted to them because of the individual components that make up that country,” and that it’s basically a non-starter to expect them to market themselves as part of a group of destinations or as a neighbor to a popular spot.

Jenkins said his organization would rather see the commission address the flip-side of that issue — not how EU destinations get on people’s travel agenda but how they get booted off. It’s ironic, Jenkins said, that travelers choose “Rome” or “Paris” to visit, but if there’s a problem anywhere on the continent they cancel that trip to “Europe."

"Where we most desperately need [commission] effort,” Jenkins said, is setting up a “reactive force to step in when something punctures demand.” 

He cites the double-whammy of what he considers overcaution by authorities in situations such as the swine flu or the ash crisis plus the lack of any strong EU voice coming out forcefully to reassure travelers that all trips everywhere don’t need to be axed. 

Russian tourist Elena Voytenko, one of those fitting in the targeted demographics of the new initiative, said the cross-border marketing won’t work on her.

She and Natasha Sinkina spent four days recently in Belgium and though their initial urge was to also try to fit in Amsterdam or Paris, both just a couple of hours’ train ride, they decided against what she called the “hurry-scurry” approach.

“Though Europe is small in the matter of distances,” Voytenko said, especially compared to Russia’s vast reaches, “you lose the feeling of a country's personality” if you do it that way.

“Belgium is Belgium and the Netherlands are the Netherlands, they have the architecture of their own, history of their own, cuisine and culture of their own,” she said, adding that she did not want to “mix them up.”

On the other hand, Voytenko and Sinkina’s friends from Khabarovsk, Russia, are the perfect examples of the people Tajani is hoping to reach. Thanks to the Schengen visa, they saw the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria in one trip last winter and Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark this summer.

American Jo Ellis is already pre-sold on the idea. She’ll come to Vienna to visit her daughter’s family this fall, her first trip to continental Europe. Ellis said the conventional American idea of a European vacation “seems to be Paris, London, Rome,” but she’s looking forward to exploring the small countries surrounding Austria, despite not yet being able to fathom driving such relatively short distances and being in an entirely different land.

Ellis wasn't aware of Tajani's designs on her tourist dollar, though with the lowered value of the euro she's pleased it will go further.