Tourism is a key potential growth area for the European economy, generating over 10 per cent of the EU's GDP and employing 13 million people.
Although forecasts are positive concerning the increase in tourists visiting the EU in the coming years, Europe must remain vigilant in the face of increasing global competition, with emerging, cheaper countries attracting more and more travellers.
Europe must play to its strengths, particularly the diversity of its countryside and its extraordinary cultural wealth. Europe's unique heritage - including museums, theatres, archaeological sites and historical cities - makes it a key tourism destination.
Cultural aspects account for around 40 per cent of tourism in Europe, clearly enhancing European identity and competitiveness, while reducing the impact of seasonality and promoting employment, multicultural understanding, social innovation, as well as local, regional and rural development.
Today's consumers tend to seek out an experience rather than simply a destination. This is why it's important to promote transnational thematic itineraries, to ensure there are many different experiences to be had in Europe, in order to attract more visitors.
Sustainable pan-European products, such as cultural or cycling routes, as well as sport and nature tourism, strengthen transnational cooperation and encourage greater involvement for small and micro enterprises.
This strategy ensures a balanced approach between the need to boost growth on one hand, and the preservation of historical sites and local traditions on the other. The quality of tourist destinations is strongly influenced by their natural and cultural environment and their integration into the local community.
Tourism shouldn't have a negative impact on residents' daily lives. On the contrary, the resident population should be positively integrated with, and able to participate in, the tourism phenomenon. Better still, European tourism plays a key role in the regeneration of rural and urban areas, boosting local and regional development.
This explains how the competitiveness of the European tourism industry is closely linked to its sustainability. When supplying tourism services, the industry must also take into account constraints linked to climate change, pressure on biodiversity and the risks to the cultural heritage posed by mass tourism.
The concept of 'smart destinations should be central to destination development and should combine the aspects of sustainability and experiential tourism. In this regard, it is essential to encourage initiatives promoting responsible management of resources.
Among these initiatives, it's worth mentioning the system of indicators for sustainable management of tourist destinations (ETIS), the European charter for sustainable and responsible tourism and the European destination of excellence (EDEN) network and award, which raises visibility of alternative tourist destinations.
As an integral part of sustainable and responsible tourism, accessibility empowers people with specific needs. This includes the elderly, people with motor or sensory disabilities, reduced mobility or food intolerances, allowing them to benefit fully from European tourism.
Allowing people to customise their travel experience, to their needs, will contribute to tackling seasonality in the tourism sector, attracting different types of tourists throughout the year, not only during the high season.
However, the European tourism industry has to overcome a number of other challenges in order to retain its level of competitiveness, such as changes in consumer behaviour, an increased demand for high quality client services and, the digitalisation and the spread of the sharing economy.
Nowadays, over 95 per cent of tourists plan their travels online and use digital resources during their holidays; travellers have turned into 'prosumers', co-creating their travel experience in real time.
The sector will need to adapt to the speed, nature and complexity of technological progress in a range of areas, from interoperability of technological infrastructure to education and training of tourism professionals.
Given this trend, it is also important to create a successful marketing strategy for European destinations, taking full advantage of the opportunities provided by the digital market.
Setting up a Europe-wide, fully accessible web platform bringing together existing information on destinations, for instance, could represent a useful solution for providing a unique and public database with access through the Visiteurope.com portal.
With the increasing number of companies operating online and the emergence of new 'pure digital' enterprises, the level of competition among companies and the influence of these players in the travellers' search, planning and booking process is increasing.
For this reason, the evolution of the digital travel environment needs to be monitored, to ensure a level playing field among incumbent and new players, as well as ensuring neutrality and transparency in the information provided to the consumer.
Finally, it's worth focusing on the sharing economy, which is still growing rapidly. This phenomenon brings benefits in terms of a wider choice being offered to consumers and a more authentic nature of the service. It also provides extensions to the official bed stock, especially in rural areas and during large-scale events, when 'traditional' accommodation is often pushed to full capacity.
However, the sharing economy has been criticised for creating an uneven economic playing field with the contemporary economy. The main issues are licensing, certification, safety and liability.