Any doubts that may exist have been dispelled: climate change is a reality that already affects all areas of our society. Moreover, Spain, due to its physical and socio-economic characteristics, is particularly vulnerable.

Consequences such as rising sea levels, increased average temperatures, and irregular precipitation patterns are already being felt. If actions are not taken to try to mitigate these issues, the future scenarios do not look promising.

Our territory is characterized, among other aspects, by the richness provided by the variety of natural resources, such as the almost 8,000 km of coastline or the different mountain ranges spread within its borders. This, combined with a favourable climate and a sociable and welcoming culture, makes us one of the top choices for tourists. Therefore, the tourism sector holds great importance in the overall economy of our country, playing a key role in contributing to the national GDP and balancing the external trade balance.

However, this natural wealth may undergo changes in the medium and long term that, if not managed with appropriate strategies, will result in negative impacts on a sector as crucial to the national economy as the tourism industry.

To reach these conclusions, it is necessary to rely on existing data and knowledge on the subject. The report “Impacts, Vulnerability, and Adaptation to Climate Change in the Tourism Sector,” published in 2016 by the Spanish Office of Climate Change of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and the Environment, within the framework of the National Plan for Adaptation to Climate Change, provides significant conclusions and data for the Mediterranean region regarding the projected effects of climate change by the end of the century. Some key points include:

  • A higher increase in temperature, especially in the summer, compared to the global average.
  • A decrease in annual precipitation, particularly in the summer and especially in the southern part of the Peninsula.
  • An increase in stormy precipitation.
  • More frequent and prolonged heatwaves.
  • Rise in the average sea level, as well as surface temperature.

Translated to the reality of the tourism sector, these negative effects could entail impacts on natural tourist resources, such as the loss of beaches, difficulty in supplying water to tourist demand during the peak season, or the reduction of snow resources in key mountainous areas, among many others.

Similarly, historical-cultural tourist resources, due to their structural characteristics, would also be affected by extreme temperatures and precipitation. These climatological impacts could lead to the migration of the local population to climatically more favourable areas, resulting in the loss of identity and culture in these ‘abandoned’ areas.

However, the effects would not only be physical; in the economic sphere, but significant changes could also occur due to global warming.

Spain would lose competitiveness as a tourist destination in favour of other Northern European countries whose meteorological conditions would significantly improve. Tourism from these countries in Central-Northern Europe, an important market segment for the national tourism industry, could be reduced by up to 20% by 2080 compared to data recorded in the early 21st century, a reduction caused by an increase in domestic travel in these currently emitting countries.

Similar effects would occur within our territory, and traditionally tourist regions would see a redirection of visitor flows to regions with better climatic conditions, such as the northern part of the country. Additionally, by 2080, overnight stays in Spain could be reduced by between 0.6 and 7.7 million, and the percentage of GDP represented by the tourism sector would decrease by between 0.67 and 0.86% for that year compared to the present.

In conclusion, all these effects on supply and demand would have considerable impacts on the national revenues generated by the tourism sector, in addition to the expenses incurred in implementing adaptation measures or readapting public and private infrastructures that could be affected by environmental accidents resulting from climate change.

Based on these projections, can anything be done to prevent or at least mitigate these negative effects of climate change on the tourism sector?

The reality is yes, and the tourism sector, as on other occasions, has already demonstrated great willingness and resilience by engaging in initiatives to face this challenge. Clear examples include the Climate Change Adaptation Strategy for the Tourism Sector in Extremadura, the Calvià Climate Strategy (2013-2020), or even private initiatives.

There are numerous actions that tourist destinations can take at the local level, collectively helping to manage these effects and prepare the sector for the new future of tourism.

Among these adaptation measures are general ones, such as reformulating existing tourism models, to more specific ones, such as training and awareness programs, financial incentives promoting environmentally friendly practices, the application of technology to improve natural resource management processes, or administrative measures in ecosystem management and urban planning.

Another great example of this adaptive capacity of the tourism sector is the positive reception of the Smart Tourist Destinations Network of the Spanish State Tourism Secretariat. The STD Network, which already has 96 member destinations (some of them located in Central America and South America), is based on five axes, one of which is sustainability.

Within this sustainability axis, destinations work on areas such as the conservation, improvement, and recovery of the environment, leading to actions such as promoting energy efficiency, selective waste collection and treatment, managing air quality and the water cycle, protecting the natural environment and biodiversity, and, of course, adapting to climate change.

Currently, more experienced destinations are conducting a diagnosis of sustainability-related actions with the aim of identifying new opportunities that can be translated into initiatives to continue improving management and adaptation to future changes caused by the reality of climate change.

Viewed from this perspective, the horizon ahead of us, though unknown, may generate new opportunities for the tourism sector. Undoubtedly, we are faced with a scenario of uncertainty since the extent to which these forecasts will be fulfilled and their effect on the tourism sector is unknown.

Despite this, as in previous crises, the sector has the flexibility and strength to turn this uncertainty into new opportunities to reshape the tourism model towards new formats that are more efficient and respectful of the environment and society. Nevertheless, to turn the risks of climate change into opportunities for tourist destinations, it is necessary to start acting and understand how these climatic impacts will be in the medium and long term. And for this, climate strategies are crucial.

Rodrigo Gómez, Partner at Auren Consultants, and Jorge Albín, Sustainability and Climate Change Consultant.