Responsible tourism in Spain

Travel right in Spain

Spain is the original package tourism destination. Rolled out in the 1960s, and credited with rebuilding Spain’s economy during the ravages of the Franco dictatorship, package vacations on Spain’s coastlines promised affordable sunshine, hotels and Mediterranean beaches – just a couple of hours from home. 50 years on, and with the benefit of hindsight, the high rise hotels can be seen a blight on once-beautiful landscapes, wiping out fishing communities, destroying biodiversity, polluting both the land and sea and exhausting water supplies. Crucial infrastructure was, sadly, not developed at the same astronomical rate as the hotels went up.

But perhaps Spain can take advantage of the fact that its tourism has been so concentrated for so long. At twice the size of the UK, yet with less than three-quarters of the population, there are vast, uninhabited expanses, and some of the country’s most stunning sites have barely been explored by locals, let alone tourists. As the economic crisis shreds livelihoods across the nation and unemployment soars, tourism could once again be the answer to Spain’s financial woes. The key is that this time, rather than revelling in the fry-ups, pubs and roast dinners, tourists are appreciating that maybe the best thing about the country is not that you can get an English breakfast in the sunshine, but that it is, most wonderfully of all, Spain.

* Source: BBC

People & culture


The Spanish stereotype is its laid-back culture and siesta-fiesta lifestyle. But anyone who has travelled there since financial crisis will have noticed a more serious tone in conversations. With a quarter of the adult population unemployed – many of them long-term – and more than half of all young people out of work, talk of a “lost generation” is very real, especially in rural areas.

Corruption at all levels has allowed uncontrolled building projects to spring up across the country – hundreds of unnecessary houses being built in underpopulated regions, the construction of entire airports where planes will never land – obscenely huge projects with built in obsolescence, designed to fail once their contractors had taken their cash and run. The environmental impacts are clear, but as Spain sinks deeper into recession it is the social impact of these doomed projects that is having the most catastrophic effect.

Tom Powers, from our supplier Pura Aventura, explains more: “The vast oversupply of housing will leave Spain in a hole for generations. In the UK, the recovery is fuelled in part by house price rises, due to the lack of housing. That cannot happen in Spain – there are too many houses. So there’s a massively educated population and they’re all leaving; they’re all going to South America, or northern Europe. Spanish dentists are queuing up for minimum wage kitchen porter jobs in London. That’s the real tragedy. “

What you can do
Creating employment in rural areas is, fortunately, responsible tourism’s forte!
Andrew Appleyard, from our supplier Exodus: “It is incredibly important to keep supporting lesser-known areas like the Picos, Catalonia, Burgos and the Sierra Nevada where there are not many forms of employment. For a walking vacation, so many people flock to the Camino de Santiago – but employment in that area is already good. The lesser known areas are losing all their young people to the cities; tourism is an important part of keeping those communities together. But you need to provide employment for more than four or five months of the year to stop people leaving – it’s very important to those rural economies. People always focus development on the third world – but there’s huge unemployment in Spain and Italy – even in Europe you can make a big difference.”

Wildlife & environment


Save the seas

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. Spain is – literally – trying to clean up its act, and now has 419 blue flag beaches which promise clean waters, for swimmers – and for marine life. The water is tested weekly during high season, so you can be sure the flag indicates cleanliness. Blue flag guarantee of clean beaches – water tested weekly in high season, monthly outside of that time.*

What you can do
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.

* Source: BBC Learning Zone

Responsible tourism tips

Travel better in Spain

  • Tap water is safe to drink in virtually all of Spain – if in doubt, ask your hosts. Bring refillable bottles and reduce your waste. In some rural areas, such as the Picos de Europa, there are drinking fountains where you can refill your bottle.
  • Water is scarce throughout the country, especially on the islands. Be respectful of the people who have to endure the threat of drought year-round and use water sparingly.
  • Wild fires 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.
  • Eat local! Outside of the concentrated resort areas, this is surprisingly easy to do. Weekly markets are a great place for self-catering travelers 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…
  • Spain 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, wine, and little canvas bags of paella rice – all counted in food metres rather than miles.
  • Bullfighting is still a popular attraction across much of Spain, particularly in Andalucia and Madrid. Northern Spain prefers bull runs, with the most famous – San Fermin – taking place in Pamplona. Catalonia has recently banned bullfighting, but bull running still takes place. At Responsible Travel, we don’t support the idea of killing animals for sport – and anyone taking part in the bull runs is also putting themselves at risk of injury or worse. It is, undeniably, a huge part of Spain’s culture and national identity – but if you want to know more, we’d recommend reading Ernest Hemingway’s classic 1926 account of San Fermin in The Sun Also Rises.
  • At Responsible Travel, we do not support keeping whales or dolphins in captivity. Spain has several dolphinaria with performing dolphins, sea lions, and even orcas. For more information on our stance, and on where to see these marine mammals in the wild, take a look at our Dolphin watching guide and our Whale watching guide.
  • 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.
  • Regionalism is strong in Spain, particularly the Basque Country, Valencia and Catalonia – the latter is fighting for an independence referendum. Each of these regions has its own language and unique cultural traditions. Not lumping them all together as “Spain” is much appreciated – as is learning a few words of the local language, even if it is just “good morning” and “thank you!”
  • In some areas, including the Picos de Europa, quad and motor bikes are becoming increasingly popular. As well as causing pollution, damaging vegetation and disturbing wildlife, they are noisy and smelly for other visitors. People go to the wilderness for the peace and tranquility – noisy, unnecessary vehicles are the antithesis of this. The same goes for jet skis on the coast.
  •  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!

Be aware that water is precious. The British notion of a drought is somewhat different to Andalusia – don't expect to see water in the rivers! - Richard Needham, from our reviews

Take your own shopping bag(s) as the market people kindly give you a plastic bag for every item. We ended up with several and that was with trying to refuse! - Jude and Ken Mckenzie, from our reviews

Photo credits: [Construction: BY-YOUR-?]
Written by Vicki Brown
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