The Return of Energy Intensive Tourism in Spain

Back to the bars, beaches, and climate negligence.

The almost-complete easing of travel-related restrictions in the first quarter of 2022 has jumpstarted recovery in Spain’s tourist industry, reaching around 70% of its pre-pandemic levels. With packed beaches, bars, and nightclubs, the world’s second most important holiday destination is showing nostalgic signs of normality.

Despite providing a critical lifeline for the 12.2% of the Spanish population who heavily depend on overseas tourism, the pervasive environmental impact that underpins the industry has once again begun to accumulate.

Globally, tourism is a significant contributor to the climate crisis, accounting for 8% of total carbon emissions, making the industry the 5th largest emitter of anthropogenic carbon. Aside from the notoriously environmental damage that has attracted most of the mainstream media attention, notably energy-intensive leisure activities, land, air, and noise pollution and waste accumulation, the predominant reliance on air travel to reach exotic destinations has virtually dwarfed these other impacts.

Aviation tickets are currently at the most affordable in history, propelled by the explosion of budget carriers on the market, giving rise to an exponentially growing number of international travelers that is expected to grow by 300 million by 2030.

Spain has soaked up much of this growth in the last decade, almost doubling from 48 million annual visitors in 2011 to almost 90 million in the months leading up to the pandemic. Regional airports have concurred with Tourist minister, Reyes Morato’s projections of full recovery by the end of summer, with Tenerife-South, Palma de Mallorca, Valencia, Ibiza, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, and Menorca expecting arrivals to even exceed those seen before the virus.

The most significant barrier hampering climate-friendly travel is the astonishing exclusion of flights from the Paris Agreement.  The complex nature of assigning carbon accountability of international aviation entities to individual nations has made defining boundaries a challenging task. However, regardless of the complexities involved, including aviation in climate negotiations remains crucial to regulating the aviation industry and setting a carbon market mechanism that would ultimately internalize a proportion of the carbon cost towards the passenger and incentivize airlines into research and development toward relatively climate-friendly aviation.

In 2019, the Spanish Ministry of Industry, Commerce, and Tourism released a 10-year sustainable tourism plan, which although aims at disseminating awareness revolving around the protection of the environment, circular economy processes, and clean energy, there is no mention of the environmental impact of flights.

Though Spain should not be held as the culprit, the government might deem it wise to decouple its economy’s heavy reliance on tourism. The Canary Islands, for example, were responsible for a third of tourist arrivals in Spain in 2018, and unsurprisingly, half of the labour market on the island is related to tourism. The government could identify less energy-intensive means of development that would benefit both the economy and pave a way towards securing their decarbonization goals through relatively climate-friendly activities.

The return to tourism has once again shined a light on the harsh, climate-endangering realities of taking a holiday. While attention grows on building pro-environmental habits regarding diets, recycling, and commuting, tourism has tended to escape scrutiny. Countries on both ends, the host country, and their prominent customers must acknowledge the climate severity, instigate collaboration, and self-assign responsibility to configure a new norm of tourism that considers and pays the true environmental price for its imprudent hedonism.

This post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Spain Country Manager Sean Lewis


Climate Scorecard depends on support from people like you.

We are a team of researchers providing information on efforts to reduce global emissions. We help make you better informed and able to advocate for improved climate change efforts. Donations of any amount are welcome.