Mass tourism, sustainable?

On April 20, the citizens of the Canary Islands came out to demonstrate on the eight islands of the archipelago and in different European cities. Convened by 17 groups and under the cry of “The Canary Islands have a limit”, the citizens asked for a change in the tourism model. They complain about the environmental and social impact of receiving almost 20 million tourists (2023 figures) for a population of around 2.2 million. «There are problems of sewage discharges, traffic collapse and lack of investment in essential health and education services because everything is invested in tourism. Furthermore, although the service sector contributes 35% to the Canary Islands GDP, there is job insecurity and poverty and social exclusion rates are high (36% according to the latest reports). The tourism model of the 60s is no longer valid; “We are experiencing a situation of collapse,” comments Anne Anne Striewe, general director of the Canary Foundation, dedicated to environmental protection.

One of the reasons that has sparked the protests, according to local media, is the restart of construction projects such as the La Tejita luxury hotel. That is why one of the four requests launched by the “Canarias Palante” movement (emerged after the protests and made up of various groups, lawyers, urban planners, etc.) is not to grant new permits. A measure reminiscent of the one recently taken in Amsterdam where the construction of new hotels is limited until another is closed.

«A person who comes on vacation to the islands for a week can stay for a thousand euros a week, but that is the average monthly salary here. Many citizens cannot afford to rent or buy housing at such high prices,” says Anne Striewe. The increase in housing for tourist use (VUT) is one of the common complaints against tourism not only in the Canary Islands. Also in Santander, Málaga, Barcelona or Madrid. That is why one of the usual demands of groups like the Canary Islands is the regulation and control of this activity. Only in the Canary Islands, according to a study recently published by the University of La Laguna together with the Ministry of Tourism and Employment, the vacation home places on the islands represent 36% of the total offer, traditional apartments 18% and hotels make up 46%. Carlos Abella, general secretary of the Spanish Tourism Board, agrees with this VUT control measure. «There has been significant growth in tourism. Before the pandemic, in 2019, there were 83 million tourists and now 85 million people arrive each year. Now, from 2000 to 2024 hotel beds have increased by 9.7% and tourists have grown by 45 million, where do all these people sleep? In Madrid there have been reports that 90% of these SUTs are illegal, that is, they do not create jobs or pay taxes. Part of the overcrowding comes from here and we must regulate what is already an economic activity,” he says.

Another of the measures requested in the Canary Islands is the establishment of a finalist ecotax, that reverts to conservation programs, for example. The municipality of Mogán (Gran Canaria) has just established it and estimates that from 2025 it could raise 2,500,000 euros. «The Teide park is the most visited in Spain with four million visitors a year and it has only four guards. In the end it is common for people to go off the path, uproot plants, pick up stones. If there was an equal completion rate, more guards could be hired,” says Striewe.

Perhaps the best-known international case of tourism is Venice, which receives 30 million tourists a year and has only 50,000 residents. Here are the measurements for limit the number of tourists They have been common for years; one of them is to set a rate to access the city. San Sebastián has also just limited the number of daily visitors and natural landscapes such as Doñana, the lakes of Covadonga, the beach of the cathedrals or the beech forest of Montejo or Mount Teide have these limitations. In the Balearic Islands, for some years now, the anchoring of yachts has been controlled to conserve the posidonia.

Even before the pandemic, protest movements had emerged and the term appeared tourismphobia, but the experts consulted agree that it is not about going and regulating against a key sector for the economy, but about manage. «The problem is the concentration on periods and destinations. Prohibiting can give tourists an image that they are not welcome when what needs to be done is take measures so that tourism generates wealth and progress,” says Abella from the Tourism Board.

To diversify

«The touristification phenomenon is exacerbating in many cities such as Madrid, Valencia, Seville, Lisbon or Barcelona and in natural spaces. Social networks and influencers or the appearance of a place in a movie have a knock-on effect for hundreds of people looking for the photo and who want to go to the same place on the same days. I would bet on doing a prior study of the load capacity, or rather, of the reception capacity of each natural space or a municipality, to calculate the number of visitors (both in total figures, as well as sizing of groups and frequencies, as well as visitable times of the year and definition of critical areas (nesting, etc.)”, explains Carlos Calderón , responsible for the Master in ecological and sustainable tourism management at the Polytechnic University of Madrid.

Another solution proposed by those consulted is diversify the tourist offer to escape the sun and beach destination that attracts tourists to the same areas and at the same times of the year. «The lack of development of alternatives means maintaining the “low-cost” tourism model in Spain evidenced in cases such as those in the Canary Islands in recent months and highlighted in the British media. This may lead to taking the opportunity to other alternative destinations in North Africa, for example, which may be equally competitive. We must value rural, nature and cultural tourism as attractive options and develop ecotourism,” concludes the UPM professor.

End of the world tourism

The recent annual meeting of the Antarctic Treaty, which was held a few weeks ago in the Indian city of Kochi, has seriously dealt with the issue of the massive arrival of visitors to the frozen continent. Although tourism is one of the two commercial activities allowed in this remote area (the other is fishing), the arrival of 120,000 tourists this year and 100,000 in the past has set off alarm bells and made the debate on possible regulation a priority. «It has been decided for the first time to create a working group on the subject. There has been tourism since 1959, but we are very concerned about its increase. There is little information about the cumulative impacts of tourism, but what happens here is that all people go to the same areas and there is no technical regulation of this activity,” says Antonio Quesada, member of the Spanish Polar Committee. The work time frame that has been established for the new group is eight years and “we want the protocol that emerges to be mandatory.”

There is tourism that some have called end-of-the-world tourism that attracts thousands of tourists each year, with very high purchasing power, to virgin spaces like Antarctica. The same thing happens to the Galapagos Islands, a special conservation area, where the population lives off tourism, but which is increasingly a hive of visitors: up to 300,000 a year. This 2024, the government has doubled access fees to the islands to minimize the number of arrivals: «The number of cruise ships and boats that can operate in the coastal waters of the islands has been limited. We must prevent problems such as boat collisions with marine fauna from increasing. “And between 12 and 20% of the sea turtles inventoried showed damage in various studies carried out by the Charles Darwin Foundation,” explains UPM researcher Carlos Calderón.

If you only love what you know, attracting visitors to natural spaces can serve to raise awareness, but where is the limit of tourism? When is it too much? The images of the peak of Everest with long lines of climbers waiting to crown the roof of the world and the amount of garbage that accumulates have been circulating around the world for several years and generated a debate about what is happening in this remote area of ​​the world. The least it seems dangerous for people, as well as a threat to this space.