When climatologists look back at the summer of 2023, they’ll see a three-month stretch of weather extremes: unrelenting heat, unprecedented wildfires, and record-setting storms. Wildfires returned to Greece and debuted in Maui. Hurricanes intensified at rapid speeds, glaciers continued shrinking, and tropical storm Hillary flooded the deserts of California and Nevada.
These shifting — and worsening — weather patterns are also shifting tourists’ vacation habits, with more people looking for new summer escapes as they find old vacation haunts increasingly uncomfortable and northern locations more welcoming, travel industry experts say.
“We started to see a really large increase in demand for destinations like Norway and Denmark, which wouldn’t normally be destinations for summer,” said Rebecca Marsi, founder of the London-based private travel club Little Emperors. “People don’t want to travel with a young baby to a destination that’s 48 degrees [118 degrees Fahrenheit]. It’s just not pleasant.”
Marsi was speaking on a panel at the annual Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas, a gathering of travel advisers and industry representatives. Other travel advisers at the conference said they observed a similar shift.
“We’ve been sending Canadians and Americans to Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, which traditionally haven’t been as popular as Italy, France, and Greece in the summer months,” said Jamsheed Pocha, cofounder of the Toronto-based travel agency the Pelican Club. “And then moving that summer demand of Italy, France, and Greece to, say, September, which is getting increasingly popular. October is also getting a little bit of attention. You wouldn’t expect to be swimming in the Mediterranean during those months, but people still want to go, considering it will still be pretty warm.”
Travelers say they are increasingly happy to relinquish the blistering summer heatwaves to enjoy themselves elsewhere.
“My big trip in 2022 was Spain and Malta, in August and September, during a heat wave,” said Boston-based public speaker Robert Dimmick. “While August has always been my favorite month, I will likely spend it closer to home. In 2023, my big overseas trip was in May to England, which was much more temperate.”
Dimmick is part of a growing number of tourists who have had enough with extreme weather, which scientists say is the result of climate change. Cambridge-based EF Go Ahead Tours saw early bookings for travel to Scandinavian countries more than double this year. Meanwhile, the company is seeing significant gains in people booking trips to Spain, Italy, and Portugal from February to May. Another study of 3,000 travelers from vacation rental company HomeToGo found a similar trend, with increased searches for rentals on the Baltic Sea and more off-season searches for Mediterranean countries.
“We found that weather and climate conditions are among the top considerations for today’s travelers when deciding on a destination, surpassing other factors like food, nature, history, and politics,” said HomeToGo spokesperson Danielle Delozier. “In addition, 62 percent of travelers also admitted that recent climate events have influenced their trip planning.”
Climatologists and travel professionals don’t anticipate seeing the shift in new destinations abating. While the Rhine and the Danube rivers didn’t dry up this year, Spain experienced a severe drought. Wildfires may not have been as severe in California in 2023, but they were deadly in Maui.
“Unlike people, climate change doesn’t take a holiday,” said Robert Wilson, an associate professor in the Department of Geography in the Environment at Syracuse University. “In coming years, tourists will need to prepare to evacuate from vacation spots, often with little notice. Some of the worst wildfires in recent years, such as on Maui and near Lake Tahoe, Calif., have forced tourists as well as residents to flee.”
It’s not only summer holidays that are changing due to warming temperatures. Mathias Vuille, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at the University at Albany, hails from Switzerland and said he’s seen a steady decline in snow totals in his country every year.
“Many ski resorts built in the 1960s, or even the 1950s, are closing,” he said. “The climate was a very different climate from today. They’re in the lower altitudes. They’re not economically viable anymore. There’s also been an increase in demand for summer skiing on glaciers, and that’s getting more expensive because there are now fewer options.”
Vuille said ski areas and other mountainous regions where winter sports are no longer sustainable have an opportunity to diversify and broaden their portfolios, attracting more tourists in the summer instead of the winter.
“People may start to seek refuge from the heat along the coastline in the summer by going higher up into the mountains,” he said.
A move to more northern summer vacations could aid New England ski areas. Our area has been experiencing shorter winters, particularly since the 1980s. A study published in 2021 by researchers at Salem State University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that winter is warming faster than any other season in New England. January 2023 saw record warmth in much of the region, hitting ski areas in southern New England hard.
The new opportunities presented by the changing climate — longer summer seasons and demand for new destinations — are what travel experts say will help keep tourism growing and assisting new markets, too.
“I think travelers are just very clever,” said Julia Simpson, president of the World Travel and Tourism Council. “When there are natural disasters, which there have always been, they adapt. But it is something we’re closely watching. This is not a blame game. This is about finding smart solutions. Travel is a major economic driver.”
Nick Cavanaugh, a weather data scientist who is CEO of Sensible Weather, a platform that helps travelers plan their trips based on weather patterns, is more straightforward about climate change and travel. He said fear about climate change should not strip the joy from travel.
“It’s going to be OK,” he said. “We need not be stifled and hiding in our houses because we’re so afraid of making any decisions because everything seems different. It’s important to go out and experience the world. We can’t lose sight of that. Some places may become less desirable, but it will also open up new places you haven’t traveled to.”
Colby College environmental studies professor Gail Carlson has a less casual view of the changing climate. She’s been studying global warming for years, but 2023 was memorable for her, and not in a good way.
“You could see it in the orange skies or chokingly high air pollution from the Canadian wildfires,” said Carlson, who also authored “Human Health and the Climate Crisis.” “When I put my toes in the ocean in Maine, they didn’t immediately curl up in shock from the water temperature. It was warmer.”
She hopes the silver lining of this summer’s very visible and highly publicized extreme weather is that it prompts action, or at least awareness, among those who never thought seriously about climate change.
“Many times, people don’t take action unless it’s something that affects them directly,” she said. “This summer, a lot of people were affected. Let’s hope something good and positive changes will come from that.”