Responsible tourism in Andalucia

Andalucia, like many other parts of Spain, has coastal carbuncles inflicted in the name of early package tourism rolled out in the 1960s, which played a key part in rebuilding Spain’s economy during the ravages of the Franco dictatorship. Today, responsible tourism in Andalucia recognises that mass-market tourism has to be understood as something that needs balancing with the needs of traditional communities, protecting biodiversity and precious resources like fresh water, and minimising pollution. Thankfully, Costa del Sol bunkers like Torremolinos and luxury ghettos like Puerto Banus are balanced by superlative historic sites and wonderful nature that complement glorious beaches.

Perhaps the most pressing issue today however is climate change. Extreme weather events in Andalucia such as the regular summer heatwaves put at risk the environment, jobs and lives. It’s easy to feel powerless when it comes to the issue of fixing global warming, but travelling smarter, and more sustainably, certainly doesn’t hurt.

People & culture

Coastal carbuncles

Without doubt, the biggest challenge for responsible tourism in Andalucia is coastal development. Over the past half century, the Costa del Sol has been scarred by giant resorts as well as over 100 golf courses. At least 60 percent of Andalucia’s coastline has been built upon – with a shocking 100 percent of the land in Fuengirola and Torremolinos now developed. The destruction of the coast has been so severe that sand now needs to be imported to the beaches. It’s a tough situation; there is a desperate need for work here (see below), but the highly seasonal jobs in the resort areas do little to counter the high levels of unemployment – especially as many workers are temporary gap year students from overseas, whose earnings depart the local economy when they leave. And as package tourism has always been a race to the bottom – with a week in an all-inclusive resort often coming in at under £200 including flights – there’s not exactly much money to go round in the first place. Combine this with the fact these types of holidays have been falling out of favour for some years now, meaning the price wars get fiercer and the livelihood of entire towns is put at risk – and it’s clear that cheap, package resorts are not going to be the answer to Andalucia’s financial woes. The only people who have truly benefited have been the developers.

Mass tourism also puts huge strain on water supplies in Europe's most parched province – not just to satisfy the thirst of the concrete forests of high-rise beach resorts and plains of golf courses (which can sap the same amount of water as a town of 15,000 people), but also with the mania for holiday villa swimming pools. The problem is exacerbated by climate change. 2014 saw the country’s worst drought in over a century and a half, with soaring temperatures to match. Low rainfall has traditionally been one of southern Spain’s biggest tourism draws – but there is a real danger that the line could be crossed, as demand for water outstrips supply, and the damage to the economy and environment becomes too great. The ensuing failing agriculture, sandless beaches, loss of wildlife (Doñana National Park’s bird population dropped by half as they took flight in search of water) and subsequent risk of flash floods when the rains finally do fall could prove to be a turn off for even Northern Europe’s most hardened sun seekers.

Source: The Olive Press

What you can do
A lack of employment options has created a mass exodus from rural areas to the cities, and with the people go centuries of tradition and connection with the land. By rejecting the widespread package tourism model, and staying in rural guesthouses, fincas, farmstays and other more unusual accommodations, you will generate income and jobs in some of Spain’s neediest communities. Travelling off season is not just more pleasant if you are planning an active holiday – but it also spreads the income across the year, preventing places from becoming cultural deserts outside of July and August.

Not so sunny for the people

In 2014, the EU issued a report on Europe's five worst unemployment black spots. All were in Spain – and the worst of all was Andalucia, where unemployment is approaching 40 percent. The situation thankfully seems to be improving – by 2018 it had fallen to 23 percent – but that doesn’t mean the underlying causes have been fixed.

As well as wider economic woes affecting Spain and the rest of Europe, the bursting of Andalucia's property bubble caused financial mayhem. During the property-fuelled boom, many young people left school to work in construction – now that work has disappeared they are left with no work and no education.

While property was a temporary major industry, agriculture has been a mainstay of Andalucia's economy for a long time, with olives to the fore. Jaén alone accounts for nearly 30 percent of the world's olive oil production, and olive oil production accounts for 90 percent of its jobs. But not only does such intensive olive production pose environmental issues (see environment section) but it leaves the region vulnerable to dreaded events such as disastrous crop failures, which blighted production in recent years.

A more deep-seated problem is the ownership of land. SAT, the Andalucian workers' union, says that just 2 percent of the population own 55 percent of Andalucia's arable land, and that job creation is not a big priority for these huge landowners – only profits.

Tourism provides some grounds for optimism, with tourist numbers rising – along with inward foreign investment. But it is merely a sticking plaster on a wound that needs intensive care.

Source: The Guardian

What you can do
Focus your spending on local enterprises – especially ones away from the main tourist centres – to help direct money where it can most benefit struggling communities. That doesn't mean don't spend in the cities - spending generously in small locally owned restaurants and shops helps just as much there as it does in a rural hamlet.

Wildlife & environment

The frying pan of Europe

About an hour’s drive west of Seville, the little town of Écija is known as the ‘frying pan of Spain’. Temperatures here in the height of summer have been known to top 48°C – hot enough, the locals say, to fry an egg on the pavement. And while other parts of Andalucia don’t quite get these extremes, the sad reality is that deadly heatwaves are now a fact of life in summer.

August 2018 saw some of the highest temperatures yet in southern Spain, soaring as high as 45°C in some places. Beaches and coastal resorts, always busy in the summer, get even more crowded as locals and tourists alike flock to the water’s edge to escape the baking heat. These heatwaves can last for weeks, and frequently claim lives.

But it’s not only the sweltering heat that you need to be concerned with. In summer dry vegetation is a tinderbox, and forest fires are a regular hazard in Andalucia, often leading to forced evacuations of homes and hotels, as firefighters struggle to contain and extinguish the flames.

Sources: The Guardian, El Pais

What you can do
The most obvious answer here is not to travel during the summer when temperatures are at their most intense. Andalucia is lovely throughout the year, so there’s no need to subject yourself to the heat, or the crowds, or the higher prices. Many of our Andalucia holidays take you away from the coast and up to higher elevations where temperatures are usually significantly cooler. Even so, in summer you’ll need to ensure you stay well-hydrated and consider adopting the locals’ approach of taking a shady siesta for a few hours from midday. Remember that water supply is a major issue in Andalucia, one of the driest regions in Europe, so keeping your showers to a minimum is important. And of course be as careful as you can not to accidentally start a fire, such as with a carelessly discarded cigarette end.

Responsible tourism tips

Wildfires are a risk throughout the long, hot summer months. Be extremely careful when driving, do not discard cigarette butts and never leave glass bottles lying around, as they can spark a fire in dry vegetation. In some regions, starting a forest fire – even if it is an accident – is treated as a criminal offence. Tap water is safe to drink in virtually all of Spain – if in doubt, ask your hosts. Bring refillable bottles and reduce your waste. Eat local! Outside of the concentrated resort areas, this is surprisingly easy to do. Weekly markets are a great place for self-catering travellers to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables, and coastal areas will benefit from daily fish. If you’re not planning on cooking, you can still prepare your own picnics with bread, cheese, fruit, olives. Andalucia has some enormous agriculture projects – but many rural areas are still filled with small-scale producers, growing largely organic rice, olives, fruit, grapes and oranges, for example. Some of these make lovely gifts, including olive oil and wine – counted in food metres rather than miles. We don’t support the idea of killing or tormenting animals for sport. Bullfighting is, undeniably, a huge part of Andalucia’s culture and identity – but if you want to know more, we’d recommend reading Ernest Hemingway’s classic 1926 account of San Fermin, which takes place in Pamplona, Northern Spain, in The Sun Also Rises. There is a dolphinarium at Benalmadena, where dolphins and sea lions perform in shows, and tourists can swim with the sea lions. We do not support the keeping of these intelligent mammals in captivity, so if you would like to see dolphins in their natural habitat – and swim with them in a responsible way – take a look at our Dolphin watching travel guide. There are numerous rules regarding driving in Andalucia, so be sure to check you have all necessary equipment before hiring a car. The FCO website is a good place to start. Note: it is illegal to use a mobile phone when driving here, even if you pull over. Completely hands-free units are permitted. Beachwear should be restricted to the beach. Not only is it culturally inappropriate in many coastal towns for men to be topless or for women to wear bikinis, it is also illegal in some regions and fines can be imposed – even on the promenade. Familiarise yourself with the rules for each park or protected area. You may be expected to stick to the main trails, wild camping may not be allowed at all or only following certain guidelines, and bathing in rivers or lakes is not always permitted. These rules are there to preserve the biodiversity and the natural beauty – please obey them. Throughout the whole of the Mediterranean, an incredible 60 percent of sewage goes into the sea untreated – and tourism plays a large part in this, as large numbers of people flock to small areas for just a few weeks each year. Andalucia – along with the rest of Spain – is literally trying to clean up its act, and the region now has around 80 Blue Flag beaches promising clean waters for swimmers – and for marine life. The water is tested weekly during high season and monthly at other times. If you are staying in or visiting a coastal area, be sure to check that the beach has a Blue Flag. This not only ensures clean water for swimming, but also demonstrates your support for local efforts to treat sewage.
Written by Norman Miller
Photo credits: [Page banner: Sean Pavone] [Coastal carbuncles: © 2008, Pilise Gábor.] [The frying pan of Europe: Cear2002]