Despite ‘stay away’ warnings, British tourists remain obsessed with Spain

Spain in 1979
Spain is set to retain its crown as the long-term favourite holiday destination of British travellers - ullstein bild/Getty

The British love the Med. For 75 years we have flocked to the Costa del Sol, the French Riviera and the Greek islands to bathe in their azure waters and soak up the summer sun.

But last summer, things changed. Southern Europe witnessed one of the worst heat waves in living memory: Cerberus. The mercury hit 45C in some parts. The Acropolis in Athens was closed to tourists. Wildfires raged across Sicily and Rhodes, where sunseekers were forced to evacuate. By late July 2023, the Mediterranean seemed like the last place on Earth you would want to be.

Fast forward to January 2024, and holiday firms are reporting the strongest booking numbers since before the pandemic. Advantage Travel Partnership, which represents scores of UK travel agents, said Jan 13 was its busiest day for bookings – ever. So do the British holidaying masses remain faithful to the Med, or have our heads been turned?

To find out, we spoke to 40 of the biggest holiday companies in the UK. Some presented hard booking data, others gave risers and fallers, while some could only reveal search stats due to market sensitivities. In short, the below is by no means exhaustive, but it gives a forecast of where people are booking, and looking, for the holiday season ahead. An exit poll from the January sales, if you will.

Spain remains hot

“I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than in most countries,” wrote George Orwell in 1938. It seems that we all still agree, with Spain set to retain its crown as our favourite holiday destination.

The Canary Islands, the Balearics and mainland Spain were by far the most-mentioned destinations in our survey, despite some holiday favourites such as Lanzarote expressing wishes for a higher calibre of tourist, just last year. Majorca and Tenerife are the top two destinations according to Tui, while easyJet Holidays lists Lanzarote, Tenerife, Alicante, Malaga and Valencia among its leading options. Of the top ten destinations presented by holiday aggregator, Travel Supermarket, eight are either on mainland Spain or a Spanish island.

Despite a rocky peak season in 2023, the rest of the Med remains popular. Greece – despite last summer’s wildfires – and Turkey are among the top European countries. Portugal also received a number of mentions (more, notably, than Italy and France combined), with Advantage Travel Partnership revealing that bookings to the country are up 54 per cent compared to the same week last year.

Cooling interest in Iceland (and the Middle East)?

While the popularity of the Med continues to rise, some destinations will inevitably face a relative slow-down in 2023. Iceland, for example, has fallen out of Original Travel’s top ten destinations for January bookings – due, perhaps, to the ongoing volcanic eruption that has grabbed headlines. A number of agents report high bookings for Norway, which could be cashing in on Icelandic jitters: “Adventures under the Northern Lights in particular are seemingly having a moment,” reported Much Better Adventures, which cited Norway as a top destination for 2024.

Iceland northern light
Iceland might be falling out of favour, while Norway rises in popularity - Getty/Moment RF

Explore, the adventure travel tour operator, said: “Unsurprisingly, the Middle East is down – last year’s top selling trip, Discover Jordan, has fallen outside of the top five this January.” The UAE and Egypt, on the flipside, appear resilient: Holiday Extras reports a 65 per cent and 87 per cent year-on-year increase in bookings for these destinations, which each received multiple mentions in our survey.

In it for the long haul

A consistent message from the surveyed tour ops and travel agents is that long haul is proving highly popular – something that suggests climate concerns have yet to affect the travel plans of the majority of Britons. Thomas Cook reports that this time last year, only four per cent of bookings were to long-haul destinations. This year, far-flung holidays make up more than 11 per cent of its takings in the January window.

“It might be that families are prepared to fly beyond the Mediterranean for cooler temperatures in the summer – for example, Mauritius is generally 25–30C in the summer months,” said Emma King, head of product at Thomas Cook.

Across our January sales exit poll, the Caribbean islands (particularly Barbados) proved popular, as did the Maldives, India, the USA, Mexico, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Japan, in particular, looks set to be a leading destination for 2024: the Ultimate Travel Company reports a 167 per cent uptick, while Newmarket Holidays says its Japan Unveiled itinerary is a bestseller. This is most likely due to the fact that in January 2023, Japan had only been open to tourists for a few months.

Sensoji Temple, Tokyo, Japan
Japan looks set to be a leading destination for 2024 - AFP/Getty

Interestingly, a handful of operators note a slight downturn in France bookings. In Visit Britain’s annual trend report, it predicted: “The Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris during July and August may displace some inbound traffic if securing hotel rooms and accessing key tourist sites proves challenging.”

The verdict

All the above spells good news for the travel industry, and good news for the holidaymaker, too. Last year came close, but fell slightly short of 2019’s record-breaking tourism figures. From our exit polls, it looks likely that those pre-pandemic highs will be surpassed in 2024. Tui, easyJet Holidays and Jet2holidays have stacked on millions of extra seats for this summer: these appear to be filling up, but if they are going to sell out, particularly in an ongoing cost of living crisis, these firms will need to get the price right. Don’t be surprised if Nineties-style last-minute savings emerge as the summer window draws closer.

As for where to book? If you’re looking to find short-haul sun without bumping into too many fellow British tourists, we noticed an absence of overt hype around Croatia, Cyprus, Montenegro and Malta – each offering similar climates to their popular counterparts of Spain, Greece and Turkey, but without quite the same quantities planning to descend this summer.

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