What responses does the European Union provide to the tourism sector within the framework of its competences?

By Philippe Vlaemminck, Mathilde Thibault & Arno Couwenbergh

The tourism sector is being hit hard by containment measures, bans on crossing borders and the postponement of many sporting and cultural events. In the European Union, the world’s leading tourist destination, tourism businesses are facing unprecedented economic pressure and many jobs are under threat. 

As the summer season approaches, what are the prospects for this sector :

  • which contributes between 10 and 11% of the EU’s GDP;
  • accounts for 12% of employment in the EU, i.e. 27 million direct and indirect jobs;
  • is made up of almost 3 million businesses, 90% of which are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), some of them very small?[1]

The Communication on tourism to guide the recovery of the sector is to be published mid-May (13 May) and would be accompanied by a set of guidelines on transport and borders.

I. Overview of the legal framework for EU action in the field of tourism 

Tourism has its own legal basis since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. This gives the European Union the power to complement the action of the Member States in the tourism sector.

Article 195 TFEU provides that Union action shall be aimed at: 

  • encouraging the creation of a favourable environment to the development of undertakings in this sector; 
  • promoting cooperation between Member States, particularly by the exchange of good practice

Article 195 TFEU specifies that Union actions exclude any harmonisation of the laws and regulations of the Member States.

In 2010, the Commission published a communication entitled “Europe, the world’s n°1 tourist destination – a new political framework for European tourism”. It recalls that the European Union did not wait for a specific legal basis to be enshrined in the Treaty in order to lay the foundations for a European tourism policy.[2]

In this communication, the Commission therefore sets out the four priorities which, from 2010 to date, in consultation with the Member States and the main stakeholders in the sector, have guided the European Union’s action in the field of tourism: 

  • Stimulate competitiveness in the European tourism sector; 
  • Promote the development of sustainable, responsible and high-quality tourism; 
  • Consolidate the image and profile of Europe as a collection of sustainable and high-quality destinations; 
  • Maximise the potential of EU financial policies and instruments for developing tourism.

Furthermore, as tourism is closely linked to other areas of EU competences such as the transport policy or the free movement of persons, various instruments related to tourism have been adopted

For example, Directive (EU) 2015/230 on package travel and linked travel arrangements or the four regulations on passenger rights for all types of transport (air, sea, rail and coach) illustrate this link between tourism and other EU policies.

The measures taken by the European Union in the field of tourism in the current context are framed within this legal framework.

II. What actions have already been taken and what measures are envisaged by the European Union in the current context?

  • In the EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, MEPs of the Tourism Task Force call on the European Commission to draw up a clear action plan to rescue tourism.

The European Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee (TRAN) brings together MEPs working more specifically on transport and tourism issues and has a specific Task Force dedicated to tourism. 

The Tourism Task Force (TTF), made up of 18 MEPs, drew the Commission’s attention to the impact of the crisis on the tourism sectorin a letter sent on 24 March to Commissioners Thierry Breton and Adina Vălean. In this letter, the Task Force calls on the Commission to publish guidelines based on the good practices adopted by the sector during this period of health crisis and to provide for an appropriate recovery plan to meet the needs of businesses, employees in the sector and consumers alike. 

On 28 April, at a meeting of the TRAN Committee attended by the Commissioner responsible for transport, Adina Vălean, several MEPs renewed their call for concrete action of the European Commission with regard to the tourism sector as the summer period approaches. 

Indeed, certain MEPs stress the importance of ensuring that professionals in this sector do not face distortions of competition due to excessive divergences between Member States. Some call for an information platform to be set up so that all stakeholders in the tourism sector know what will be possible and so that travellers can know where they will be able to go in the coming months. They also call for the integration of a budget line for tourism in the multi-annual financial framework for the period 2021-2027.[3]

  • At the level of the COUNCIL OF THE EUROPEAN UNION, the Ministers of the Member States of the European Unionresponsible for tourism exchange best practices and ways of strengthening support for the tourism sector in order to guide the Commission on the needs of the sector.

On 27 April, an informal videoconference of European Union Ministers responsible for tourism was held, in the presence of the Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Zurab Pololikashvili, to exchange best practices and identify ways to strengthen support for the European Union’s tourism sector, which has been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis. 

Mention was made of the future implementation of common health standards in airports, restaurants and hotels and the introduction of a harmonised solution for the reimbursement of package travel (“vouchers”).

On the same day, a common position statement was signed by the Tourism Ministers of nine Member States.[4] They call for strong support for tourism to be included in the European Union’s recovery plan and stress the importance of establishing homogeneous rules for both air and sea/land mobility.

  • The EUROPEAN COMMISSION is continuing the work already undertaken and announces a new publication in the coming days (13 May).

In its communication of 13 March 2020, the European Commission states that “the sectors most affected are the health sector, tourism, transport, in particular the airline industry” and stresses that the pressure on the EU’s tourism sector is unprecedented.

The Commission points out that SMEs in the sector are particularly affected by the general decline in tourist and business travel. The disruption of travel within and between EU Member States, which represents 87% of tourist arrivals, aggravates the situation according to the Commission. It adds that the Trade fairs and congresses sector is particularly affected, with more than 220 events cancelled or postponed in the 1st quarter of 2020, and that other sectors, such as food and beverage services as well as cultural activities are also coming under increasing pressure as a result of measures taken to contain the spread of the virus.

With regard to State aid, the Commission points out in this communication that Article 107(2)(b) TFEU allows Member States, subject to its approval, to compensate undertakings for damage suffered in exceptional circumstances. Other measures have already been taken so that SMEs can benefit from European financial aid.

Furthermore, on 8 April the Commission replied to the letter from the Tourism Task Force indicating that it was working with the OECD and the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) to produce a coordinated response to this crisis. 

On 27 April, at the opening of the informal videoconference of the European Union ministers responsible for tourism, Commissioner Thierry Breton also called on the Member States to show solidarity and share information in accordance with the recommendations of the recent Joint European Roadmap towards lifting Covid-19 containment measures, published by the Commission on 15 April. Indeed, as the Commission points out in this roadmap, “the integrated nature of the Single Market should be kept in mind” when lifting state measures to contain the virus and, while it is inevitable that “the timing and specific modalities will differ between Member States, it is essential that there is a common framework”.

In this regard, the European Commission announced at the end of the meeting of the College of Commissioners on 29 April that a communication on tourism would accompany transport guidelines. This communication should guide the recovery of the sector and will be published in mid-May. 

However, as Thierry Breton pointed out in his speech of 21 April 2020, beyond the immediacy of the situation and the management of the short-term consequences of the crisis, it is already necessary to think about what he calls “an exit imperative”, that is to say, tomorrow’s tourism: “Make no mistake : tourism will be no exception. Together we will have to reinvent it and rethink a sustainable, digital and resilient European tourism sector“.

III. Announcement of a European Tourism Summit: towards a new model of tourism taking into account environmental and digital realities

According to the Commissioner for the Internal Market, “any recovery plan, any public support for tourism must be accompanied by transition, in order to embrace, as in all other sectors, environmental, digital and strategic realities“.[5]

Thierry Breton therefore announced that a tourism summit would be organised, as soon as the health situation permits, to discuss a roadmap for the implementation of such a tourism ecosystem.

It is clear that the tourism sector faces actually many challenges. 

Some of them need to be dealt with before the summer period in order to limit the consequences of the current health crisis from both an economic and a social point of view and to enable European citizens, after this period of confinement which is a source of uncertainty and anxiety, to go on holiday within the European Union in complete safety and under non-discriminatory conditions. 

In the long term, it is also becoming urgent to define a new common European strategy for tourism. This should further promote sustainable tourism and enable all stakeholders to benefit from the opportunities offered by the digital transition in order to preserve European cultural diversity.   


[1] Speech by Commissioner Thierry Breton to the Members of the TRAN Committee of the European Parliament, 21 April 2020

[2] Communications from the Commission “Agenda for a competitive and sustainable European tourism”, COM(2007)621 final and “A renewed EU Tourism Policy: Towards a stronger partnership for European Tourism”, COM(2006)134 final.

[3] Notably at the meeting of the European Parliament’s “Transport and Tourism” Committee on 28 April 2020 in the presence of the Commissioner for Transport, Adina Vălean

[4] Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Greece, Malta, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

[5] Speech by Commissioner Thierry Breton to the Members of the TRAN Committee of the European Parliament, 21 April 2020