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Spanish tourism industry under pressure amid record drought

May 16, 2024

As Spain deals with a record lack of rainfall, calls are growing for the tourism sector to do more to save water.

A young couple is seen relaxing by the pool
The tourist sector is known for being especially water hungryImage: Jiri Hubatka/imageBROKER/picture alliance

Over the past three years, Catalonia has endured below-average rainfall, according to Spain's AEMET weather forecaster. It has been the driest period ever for this part of northeastern since weather records began. Even recent rainfall hasn't changed the situation. 
Andalusia, in southern Spain, is also affected by drought, while the Balearic and Canary Islands face serious water shortages as well. Spain's most touristic regions, in other words, are hardest hit by the lack of rainfall.

Yet given that the tourist sector is known for being especially water hungry, calls are now growing louder for the tourism industry to reduce its consumption. 

Dante Maschio, a spokesperson for Catalan citizens' association Aigua es Vida, said the sector should drastically cut back on its water use. He has been campaigning for Catalonia to improve its water management for years.

"Measures taken so far to reduce water consumption in the tourist industry have been very limited," Maschio told DW. "The sector enjoys a great deal of freedom." In times of an emergency like this, Maschio said, water hungry industries should be forced to shut down. "We don't just face a lack of rainfall," Maschio said, adding that water resources had been over-used for years.

Julio Barea, a geologist and water resources expert with Greenpeace, agrees. "When ordinary people face restrictions on water consumption, then this should apply even more so for tourists."

After all, holidaymakers at golf resorts, he told DW, consume 10 times more water per day than average folks. Even so, the Andalusian regional government recently allowed hotels to fill their pools, while ordinary people were currently banned from doing so. "That is utter nonsense," said Barea.

Crowds of tourists are seen on a beach
Lloret de Mar is a tourist magnetImage: Movementway/imageBROKER/picture alliance

Catalonia had imposed a ban on filling swimming pools in particularly drought-affected areas. This included Lloret de Mar, a tourist hotspot on Spain's northeastern coast. Hoteliers there say the ban was a disaster for the tourist trade.

"Holidaymakers want to relax by the pool," said Enric Dotras, who heads the local hoteliers' association. It invested €1.5 million ($1.6 million) into a desalination plant so that tourists could still take a dip in the pool.

Hotels scrap tubs in favor of showers

Dotras told DW he thought singling out the Spanish tourist industry was not justified, pointing out the many efforts the sector has been making to save water in past years. Many hotels have done away with bathtubs, he said, as showering conserves much more water.

He added that holidaymakers are encouraged to forgo fresh towels and bed linen every single day, which reduces the amount of water needed for washing. Some hotels, he said, have even installed systems that allow toilets to be flushed with wastewater. Dotras also pointed out that Lloret de Mar tourism accounts for almost all of the region's economic output, with some 12,000 people working in the sector.

Locals and tourists are seen walking in a busy Barcelona street
The Catalan capital Barcelona is a tourist favoriteImage: Jordi Boixareu/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

The great economic importance of the Spanish tourism industry probably explains why politicians are shying away from imposing strict water-saving measures on the sector. The Catalan regional government even lifted the ban on filling swimming pools. After all, the tourist trade makes up 12% of Spain's gross domestic product. 

In 2023, over 85 million foreign holidaymakers visited Spain — more than ever before. This makes Spain the second-most popular holiday destination in the world after France. Catalonia alone recorded more than 18 million visitors, making it the most-visited Spanish region, ahead of the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands and Andalusia.

Spain's inefficient infrastructure

The main reason for the current water shortage is due to mismanagement, according to Cels Garcia, a professor of geography at Mallorca's University of the Balearic Islands.

"Dry and wet periods have always alternated in the Mediterranean region, droughts are a natural phenomenon here," he told DW. That is why, he said, one must plan ahead. This includes using desalination plants even during rainy periods so that groundwater reserves can recover. In reality, however, the plants are shut down as soon as it rains, as desalinating water is very expensive, Garcia said.

In addition, regions like Catalonia have invested far too little into renewing their sewer systems and such infrastructure, he said. This means a considerable amount of water is lost, seeping into the ground from dilapidated pipes. The situation is similar on the Balearic Islands and in Andalusia.

Panta de Sau reservoir is seen, with mountains visible in the distance
The water level in Spain's Panta de Sau reservoir has dropped considerably in recent years, although the situation is improvingImage: Carlos Sanchez Pereyra/imageBROKER/picture alliance

Catalan officials now want to use more than a dozen new desalination plants help ease the water shortage. The government plans to build one in the middle of the port of Barcelona, according to Garcia.

"That's a simple fix," Garcia said. "However, under no circumstances should these facilities be used to encourage further growth [in the tourist industry]."

But it might already be too late for that. In the first three months of 2024, more than 16 million foreign holidaymakers visited Spain, over 17% more than the previous year.

This article was originally written in German.

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