The quality of Europe's bathing waters has improved dramatically in recent decades, and a new report released this week by the European Environment Agency (EEA) reveals that almost 85% of its bathing sites now rank as "excellent."
The annual Bathing Water Report monitored nearly 22,000 inland and coastal swimming spots across EU member states, Albania and Switzerland in 2021. The UK, having left the EU, was absent from the report for the first time.
The landlocked country of Austria, known for its many beautiful lakes including the Alpine waters of Achensee in Tyrol and the emerald-hued Weissensee in Carinthia, is at top of the ranking, with 97.7% of its waters declared excellent.
Just behind it at the top of the leaderboard are four Mediterranean vacation favorites: Malta, Greece, Croatia and Cyprus. Denmark and Germany are the other countries where more than nine out of 10 sites got the top grade.
Portugal is at No.10, with 88.5%, while Italy (87.9%) and Spain (87.4%) is in 12th and 13th place respectively.
Tourism hotspot France trails further down the rankings, with 75.7%, while Poland ranked lowest with just 44.5% -- some distance behind Slovakia with 50% and Hungary with 60.2%.
The assessment was put together by the EEA in cooperation with the European Commission. Local and national authorities took water samples during the bathing season and analyzed them for the types of bacteria that indicate pollution from sewage and livestock breeding.
The waters were then judged "excellent," "good," "sufficient" or "poor," according to European Union standards.
Swimming in waters ranked poor can result in illness -- if the water is swallowed, swimmers might experience stomach aches or diarrhea.
France had a total of 99 bathing spots that were ranked "poor," which means that they had to closed throughout the following bathing season, with measures put in place to reduce pollution and eliminate health hazards.
Sites that have been ranked poor for five consecutive years have to be closed permanently -- this happened to 31 bathing spots in Italy, eight in France and two in the Netherlands.
That rule is part of the Bathing Water Directive which was adopted in 2006 and has resulted in the proportion of excellent sites growing continuously from then on. The quality of EU waters is generally high with minimum water quality standards being met at 95.2% of all sites assessed.
Europe's cleanest bathing waters
1. Austria (97.7%)
2. Malta (96.6%)
3. Greece (95.8%)
4. Croatia (95.7%)
5. Cyprus (93.3%)
6. Denmark (91.9%)
7. Germany (90.4%)
8. Bulgaria (89.8%)
9. Lithuania (89.2%)
10. Portugal (88.5%)