Spain’s tourism: balancing Sustainability and Recovery

In the bustling streets of Barcelona, the echoes of vibrant conversations mix with the tantalizing aromas of paella wafting from nearby restaurants. The energy is palpable as tourists and locals embrace the Spanish way of life. Spain, often dubbed the “Land of Sun and Sea,” has long been a magnet for travellers seeking its natural beauty, cultural richness, and its golden coastlines. But beneath the postcard-perfect façade lies a complex web of challenges the Spain’s tourism industry must confront to ensure its future prosperity.

Before the world entered the COVID-19 pandemic, Spain firmly established itself as the second-largest tourist destination globally, drawing 84 million visitors in 2019The revenue generated by these tourists accounted for over €92 billion, representing around 14 per cent of Spain’s total GDP. Not only did this influx of travellers provide a significant economic boost, but it also generated one in every eight jobs in the country. Tourism contributed to over 20 per cent of all economic activity in specific communities.

The pandemic’s arrival cast a long shadow over Spain’s tourism sector. The once-thriving industry plummeted as travel restrictions and lockdowns swept the globe. Now, Spain faces new challenges that could reshape its tourism landscape.

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Economic uncertainties

First and foremost, a global recession threatens to dampen the spirits of travel enthusiasts worldwide. Economic uncertainties and geopolitical tensions have sown doubt in potential tourists’ minds.

In times of rising inflation, Spain is in fierce competition with other destinations offering sun-soaked coastal vacations at similar or lower prices. Egypt, Greece, and Turkey have become preferred destinations for beach-loving travellers. The Mediterranean’s turquoise waters and Mediterranean cuisine are not unique to Spain.

The shadow of climate change

The Mediterranean basin is growing warmer by the day. Projections indicate that by 2050, the number of days exceeding 37°C in southern Spain could double. This alarming trend elevates the risk of droughts, water stress, wildfires, and flooding. Extreme weather events, such as the scorching summer of 2022 when temperatures soared above 40°C in Seville, are becoming more frequent.

A 2022 survey revealed that 65% of UK holidaymakers believed Spain would be too hot to visit by 2027. To make matters even more interesting, globally, the tourism sector contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, with Spain ranking 16th in emissions from tourism.

But this comes with an opportunity: the country can distinguish itself by prioritizing sustainability, focusing on environmental concerns such as water conservation, plastic waste reduction, and carbon emissions, as well as addressing the social impacts of tourism on local communities.

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Sustainable travel

Sustainable travel could be the silver bullet that draws discerning premium travellers willing to pay extra for experiences aligned with their values. The younger generation, particularly Gen Z, has a heightened awareness of climate change and actively seeks eco-friendly accommodation options.

Spain’s tourism industry must go beyond simple marketing efforts. It has to aim at fundamental operational changes that showcase commitment to environmental and social responsibility. Sustainability encompasses three vital dimensions: social, ecological and economic. Travellers today increasingly value social sustainability, which respects the authenticity of local communities and supports local businesses. They also seek environmental sustainability, focusing on efforts to reduce the industry’s ecological footprint and preserve natural heritage. Lastly, economic sustainability entails achieving growth without compromising the social, environmental, or cultural aspects of communities.

The country could potentially draw inspiration from nations like Costa Rica, which has successfully aligned its tourism industry with the national objectives of preserving forests and biodiversity. Spain’s tourism faces unprecedented challenges while holding the promise of sustainable growth. By prioritizing sustainability, embracing operational changes, and fostering collaboration across the sector, Spain can safeguard its status as a leading global destination and contribute to the collective effort to combat climate change.

Andrea Nyilas is a Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainability Consultant and a Sustainability and Environmental journalist. She holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Sciences and Policy from Central European University, in addition to a Master of Arts degree in Economics from the Corvinus University of Budapest. She is particularly interested in circular economy, natural resource management, and waste reduction.