Heatwaves and airport queues make for holiday season from hell

High temperatures claim lives and raise fears about water shortages across Europe.

August has seen holiday dreams turn into nightmares across much of Europe by a combination of a heatwave so bad it has been named after the devil, protests against tourists, and airports transformed into overcrowded traps.

High temperatures have claimed lives in Italy and Romania, and across the continent there has been a rise in hospital admissions, concern about wildfires and a threat of water and power shortages.

From Kiev to Rome, people were spotted jumping into public fountains to beat the heat, even defying new fines in the Italian capital in a bid to cool off. Across the country hospital admissions have leapt 15% and at least three people have died as a result of extreme weather, leading Italians to brand the hot spell Lucifero. Authorities in several countries have brought in temporary restrictions on working hours and traffic as the mercury climbed above 40C, and people have been urged to stay inside and avoid alcohol. In Belgrade, a public health institute said householders without air conditioning should put wet towels over their windows.

The heat is so intense that it buckled train tracks in Serbia, adding to travel chaos, and largely alpine Slovenia reported its first “tropical night”, with temperatures that never dipped below 20C even at 1,500 metres above sea level.

The misery was intensified by chaos at several airports, particularly Barcelona’s, where a combination of stronger EU border controls and a strike left both Spaniards and tourists queuing for hours. Some travellers waited so long they missed their flights.

And in a further blow to tourism, some disgruntled locals in regions where holidaymakers are an economic mainstay have turned against an industry they say now brings more harm than good to their communities. “Tourism-phobia: the worst message at the worst time,” Spain’s El Mundo said in an editorial.

Only weeks after thousands of Venetians took to the streets for a peaceful demonstration against mass tourism, activists in Spain launched a more violent protest. Anti-tourism group Arran vandalised tourist bikes and a bus in Barcelona, slashing tyres and daubing slogans on the bus windows. In Palma de Mallorca, members of the same group burst into restaurants and boarded boats in the harbour with flares, carrying banners saying “tourism is killing Mallorca”. There have also been protests in Valencia, and one has been called in the Basque city of San Sebastián.

The Spanish tourism minister, Álvaro Nadal, has warned against “tourism-phobia”, saying that Spain “can’t allow itself to be perceived as a country that is hostile to tourists”. After a decade of misery, the country’s economy has finally returned to pre-crisis size, and an attack on tourism threatens one of the most lucrative strands of its income.

Europe had already been hit by drought and an extended July heat wave, contributing to wildfires in Portugal that killed 60. The return of high temperatures has stirred memories of Europe’s disastrous summer of 2003, when intense heat caused 15,000 extra deaths.

At least four deaths have been linked to the heat wave so far: two pensioners killed in wildfires in Italy and two Romanians who died from heat-related conditions. And the economic impact will last long after the heat fades, with olive oil production in Italy expected to be down by nearly a third, and vineyards also affected.

Researchers warned however that last week’s misery may become routine, with a report in speciality journal the Lancet Planetary Health warning that by the end of the century heat waves in Europe could cause 50 times more deaths than at present. There could be as many as 151,500 “heat-related fatalities” each year, compared with an average of 2,700 annually in the 30 years to 2010.

Adding to the misery of sweltering locals and visitors, airports were struggling to cope with high numbers of travellers and new security rules on one of the busiest weekends of the year.

Changes made in the wake of the Paris and Brussels terror attacks demand more checks on passengers from countries outside the 26-nation Schengen border-free zone, which includes the UK. Many airports have struggled to cope, and in Barcelona’s main hub a strike has exacerbated travellers’ misery.

Despite heeding advice to arrive early, several passengers said they nearly missed their flights. Luke Hansell, flying to Birmingham with his mother, said he arrived four hours early after reading warnings in news reports, then spent 90 minutes in the security queue.

After the failure of mediation, more hour-long strikes by the staff who operate scanners, search passengers and control the queues at the airport resume on Sunday. Others are scheduled for Monday, Friday and next Sunday.