How will climate change affect vacations to Spain?

Climate change is made up of big losses, and small ones too. There are the apocalyptic news stories, and then there are the small things, noticed, but not considered newsworthy: the tree in the garden that has borne no fruit this year; the secret beaches that are being eaten away by the sea.

“All the little coves disappear over winter, and have to be artificially refilled with sand,” says Ana Rodriguez Garcia, founder of Peak Me Languages, which provides walking and Spanish language vacations.

Down at the sea shore in Asturias, northern Spain, the little beaches of Ana’s childhood have disappeared. Increasingly frequent winter storms, and rising sea levels, have washed them away. It’s a common problem; beaches from Barcelona to the Balearics are manually topped up with sand before the summer season.

Warm rivers and sandy mountains

Rivers are warming up. Ana remembers the rivers of her childhood – the ones that you would never dream of cooling off in until high summer – that were the kind of cold that made you gasp. “That was the only time you could go in without screaming, you know. But that’s not the case any more,” she says. Climate change has meant that the gasp has gone out of the rivers.

Saharan sand – which Ana never recalled coming this far north – occasionally comes now, and temporarily jaundices this area of ‘green Spain’. It’s whipped up in weather systems, and falls in the rain.

Whilst broadly harmless, sand is a visceral reminder to many of what could come. Landscapes across Spain are at increasing risk of desertification caused by climate change. A fifth of Spain is already affected and almost three quarters of the country is at risk.
There is a scary lack of water in Catalonia.

Drought in Catalonia

For many, the changes are abrupt, definitive, and sometimes frightening. “There is a scary lack of water in Catalonia,” says Fiona Smart, who runs Mas Pelegri cycling vacations from an off-grid eco lodge in the area. “The people who deal with the wells in our area say that the wells all the way from us to the coast are all dry for the first time ever.”

It means that they need to consider digging a new, deeper well - 80 metres down, instead of 50. “There’s been huge changes here – and when talking to people in the UK – they haven’t noticed change,” Fiona says, “I’m not sure because they live in cities and everything is controlled but when you’re getting water from the ground and you’ve got to control your own water supply, you do notice.” In their garden, trees are struggling with the heat, “the fruits just went black and fell off.”

Winter wildfires in Spain

In Tarragona, further south in Catalonia, there are wildfires in winter now, not just summer. Summer wildfires blaze fiercer than before, thanks to prolonged drought, but ‘wildfire season’ is starting to become an irrelevant term as the risk prevails throughout the year.

“I’ve lived here 16 years and this is the first time I’ve seen this,” says Steve Clifford, co-founder of our partner Catalan Adventures, who run activity vacations in the area. A fire in February raged across 400 hectares of nearby Cap de Creus Natural Park.

The average tourist may go to some regions of Spain and simply not notice the climate change. After all, it is the very nature of traveling to see places for the first time, often isolated from their context.

Sometimes hikers are caught out by a day that’s too hot and will not be able to walk. Sometimes routes are closed due to flash floods. It’s a funny story to tell when you’re back home – of the storm that sent you running into a restaurant. But it’s the people who stay behind after you leave who add this storm to a growing tally, one that speaks of a bigger picture.
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The fact that it’s nicer weather here doesn’t make it any less scary, because we don’t know when it’s going to stop.

Good vacation weather

In Girona, there used to be summer storms in August, rolling around like clockwork in the afternoons. The average traveler probably doesn’t miss their absence; they’ll just see clear blue skies in their stead. Arguably, the area is more perfect for an outdoor vacation now that it is storm-free.

In Castile, the under-visited interior of Spain, tourists will not know that the weather is nicer than it should be. “With climate change we often get better weather in the mountainous regions than the coast, especially on the shoulder seasons,” said Marlene Smith, from our partner specialist cycling company Go Cycle Tours, based on the Sierra de Gredos.

In Asturias, the weather is deceptively beautiful, too – scary only for those who know that beautiful green northern Spain needs a bit of rain if it wants to remain green. “The fact that it’s nicer weather here doesn’t make it any less scary, because we don’t know when it’s going to stop,” says Ana, “We’re getting many days above 30 degrees.”

Spain’s climate crisis

What you might notice, instead, are the headlines. In Europe, Spain finds itself on the frontlines of climate change. Take summer 2022, a season so mammoth that it eclipsed autumn and spring, starting in May and only ending in October. Spain experienced its hottest October on record and the year was characterised by prolonged drought, which sparked multiple frightening wildfires. Heatwaves inevitably cause excess deaths – particularly in the south, and among older people. A British newspaper reported that 70 percent of Britons think Spain will be too hot to visit by 2027.

Should you stop going to Southern Spain in summer?

To write off Spain as too hot would be a dramatic oversimplification – but headlines about deadly heatwaves should inspire new ways to approach Spain as tourists.

Timing trips is a big part of making them palatable. Some of our partners are discouraging travelers from coming on active vacations in high summer – and for inland Andalucia in furnace-hot southern Spain, this advice is becoming more of a directive than a suggestion.

Those aged over 75, or with young children, or who have a chronic or severe illness, are all at-risk groups in a heatwave, and might think twice about going to a region where there’s an increasing likelihood of temperatures over 40 degrees.

Many of our partners have always advocated for visiting Spain off-peak, outside of its busy summer season, anyway – to bring money into the economy year round and take pressure off over-visited tourist sites. Climate change adds another reason to avoid summer.
We used to get cool nights even in the summer – but now we’re been getting what the media calls ‘tropical nights’

To A/C, or not to A/C

Vacation operators are preparing for travelers in new ways. A lot of this is about regulating the temperature, specifically for hot summer nights, so that guests can sleep. Houses can be cooled, to some extent, by opening the windows at night, having a fan running, and closing everything up in the day. Guests might be asked to be vigilant with their windows and shutters to help. Increasingly, even in Spain’s north, this might not be enough.

“The problem is once you have three or four weeks with the temperature above 30 degrees – once the heat is in the house it’s impossible to cool it down,” explains Ana in Asturias. “We used to get cool nights even in the summer – but now we’ve been getting what the media calls ‘tropical nights’.” She is trying to find ways to keep cool without air conditioning, but finds, with ever increasing temperatures, that the pool of feasible alternatives is shrinking.

“We never needed it,” says Fiona, of her Catalonia property, explaining how the rising temperatures have meant that her off-grid vacation accommodation now needs to run A/C. “We’ve been open for 15 years – for the first five we didn’t need any.” In the last few years though they’ve been forced to add more units – which they run off their solar panels.
‘wildfire season’ is starting to become an irrelevant term as the risk prevails throughout the year

Early starts

Visitors may also need to consider shifting their body clock for their vacation. “If someone wants to cycle here in July or August I will explain that they will have to get up early and cycle in the morning,” says Fiona, “People who live in Australia or Arizona – they do just that, they get up at 5am or 6am and do their cycle rides and come back at 9am. In Saudi Arabia, they get up 4am and then come back.” Cycling accomplished, the heat of the day can be spent inside, or close to a cooling body of water. Fiona’s guests have found that they enjoy getting their bike rides done early in the day, so they have the afternoons to relax.

Guests might also have to be prepared for shorter walking routes in the summer – and even days where they have to forgo the walk and be shuttled to the next destination by car or bus.

Climate consciousness

If there’s a kernel of hope in all this, it’s that Spanish people, Spain’s government and visitors are all showing a capacity for adaptation. “When we used to have Spanish guests we’d think, oh, my God, they’re not going to cope with us!” says Fiona – speaking of the sustainable practices of her ecologic hotel, which runs off grid and encourages guests to be energy-conscious during their stay. “That has changed – we’ve had lots more people in Spain thinking about sustainability.” Previously marginalised responsible tourism practices are becoming far more socially acceptable.

It helps that government directives have started to lead the way. In 2022 the Spanish government put legal restrictions on the lowest air conditioning and highest heating temperatures in commercial spaces – meaning people cannot waste huge amounts of energy artificially controlling the temperature. More measures must come, especially around water conservation on a continent where agricultural drought is an ever-increasing possibility each summer.

Whether from government, or from their local operator, tourists are likely to find themselves subject to a growing list of advice and guidelines – about water conservation, heat protection, wildfire prevention. Even basic activities – sleeping, eating, drinking – become imbued with significance. On your next Spain vacation you may find that you’re increasingly mindful of everything you do. If we don’t want to lose every secret cove, climate consciousness will simply have to become part of vacationing here.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mathew MacQuarrie] [Intro: Victor Grabarczyk] [Drought in Catalonia: flamenc] [Good vacation weather: Joan Oger] [Early starts: Contando Estrelas]