Explained: How tourism might be affected by the drought in Spain this summer

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Explained: How tourism might be affected by the drought in Spain this summer
How might tourism be affected by the drought in Spain this summer? Photo: PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay

Spain is in the midst of a serious drought, the worst the country has seen in decades, and with this summer season predicted to be one of the busiest ever in terms of tourism, it could make the problem of water shortages even worse.


The Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, Héctor Gómez predicts that Spain is on track for a record-breaking year and will receive between 52.3 and 54.8 million foreign tourists during the summer months from May to October 2023. This is slightly more than the number of tourists Spain welcomed during the same months in 2019, which was the highest number on record. 

With so many tourist arrivals expected this year, it’s sure to increase water consumption and decrease the levels in the reservoirs even further.

At a national level, the reservoirs are only at 43 percent of capacity, 20 points below the average of the last decade, while regionally, the areas currently most affected by drought are Andalusia, Murcia and Catalonia, all big tourism destinations.

The Guadalquivir basins are down to water reserves at 24.1 percent of their total capacity, affecting the areas around Seville, Córdoba, Jaén and Granada. The basin of Guadalete-Barbate is at 24.4 percent, which affects the province of Cádiz and the internal reservoirs in Catalonia are at 27.6 percent, affecting most of the region.

READ ALSO: The water restrictions you can expect in Spain this summer

How much extra water do tourists use?

There’s no doubt that tourism exacerbates the water consumption in these areas. For example, on the Costa del Sol, a study by the University of Málaga in 2020 showed that climate change and population growth could compromise the domestic water supply starting in the next decade.

Another article, from the University of the Balearic Islands, showed how water consumption decreased during the coronavirus lockdown. It revealed that water consumption fell by 58 percent in the most touristy areas of the country, demonstrating just how much extra water visitors use. On the other hand, in the municipalities that typically have very few visitors, the average use of water only fell by 14 percent during the confinement.


It's not easy to define how much water a tourist consumes per day. The figures vary, but a range between 300 and 800 litres per day can be established, according to Arturo Crosby, expert adviser on the development and sustainable management of tourism.

READ ALSO: Spanish government approves €2 billion funding package to fight drought effects 

Water consumption for the hotel sector usually stands at around 200 litres per person per day, just slightly more than the average resident. This shows that water wastage is greater in hotels than in apartments, and even greater in five-star establishments than in lower-category ones. 

Tourists in hotels use on average around 200 litres of water per person per day. Photo: Lumin / Unsplash

"Our main concern is that restrictions could result in cancellations or no reservations directly," says Javier Hernández, executive vice president of the Association of Hotel Entrepreneurs of the Costa del Sol, however, he believes that the recent rains in May and the beginning of June have alleviated this problem for now.

"There is not a very high risk. It will be a disaster if tourists don’t have water and, in general, water for them is prioritised, just like the local population,” says Alberto Garrido, professor at the Polytechnic University of Madrid and director of the Water Observatory of the Botín Foundation. He believes that an increase in temperatures due to climate change may "scare away" visitors more than drought.


Restrictions already in place

But the truth is that in Catalonia, with water reserves below 30 percent, a total of 495 municipalities and 6 million people in Girona, Barcelona and its metropolitan area are already being affected by some type of restrictions. 

The regional government there has already issued bans on filling private pools from the general water supply, however, it has allowed community and municipal pools to be filled as well as those at hotels and campgrounds for reasons of public health.  

READ ALSO - EXPLAINED: What is Spain's newly activated health plan for extreme heatwaves?

In Andalusia, restrictions on re-filling have also been put in place for both private and public pools that do not circulate their own water.

Visitors this summer may also notice dryer parks and gardens that haven’t been watered as often, no running fountains and dirtier streets, with less water available for cleaning.

In the basins of the interior of Spain, rural tourism is also being affected by the drought. In Extremadura, water reserves are less than half of what is usual. "Since there is no water, the fish die and people don't come to fish," María Ángeles Gil, manager of the Lake Cíjara boat rental company, told RTVE. Some outdoor activity complexes have not even been able to deploy their water activities this year as the shoreline has receded too far.


Possible solutions

Javier Hernández, executive vice president of the Association of Hotel Entrepreneurs of the Costa del Sol (AEHCOS) regrets that there are regulations that force luxury hotels to offer daily change of sheets, as is the case in Andalusia.

But, he assures that they have implemented measures to reduce water waste through closed hot water circuits, improvements in the pressure of the showers, as well as posters so that customers do not throw their towels out to wash every day.

But is this enough? "The sector takes very logical measures even for citizens at home, but we cannot go further," Hernández says. In his opinion, with the infrastructure and sufficient awareness, the supply of water for tourism should not be a problem.

In Ibiza, where groundwater reserves are already at half their capacity and have been contaminated by seawater, experts are somewhat less optimistic. 

"This mass tourism is not sustainable," says Marina Moheno, coordinator of the Alliance for Water in Ibiza and Formentera. "It will take years for the governments to come to an agreement and make an agenda on how tourism is going to spread, how many people can come to the island. Now the important thing is that hotels, restaurants and construction studios are aware of the situation and we use this resource as efficiently as possible".

All experts agree, however, that something must be done and that they must raise awareness so that tourists know the situation before they arrive.


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