Next stop for Spanish tourism excellence: Sustainability

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Tourism is vital to Spain. The country’s natural attractions and cultural assets draw crowds from around the world—making many of its communities reliant on tourism. Pre-pandemic, Spain was the second-largest tourism destination in the world, drawing 84 million visitors in 2019 who brought over €92 billion in revenue.1 Travel and tourism accounted for around 14 percent of Spain’s total GDP and provided one in eight jobs. In some communities, tourism contributed to over 20 percent of all economic activity. While these figures plummeted during COVID-19, travel and tourism is recovering and Spain remains dependent on success in tourism.

Spain’s tourism sector now faces new challenges. Fears of a global recession, and geo-political uncertainty, could put pressure on tourism. And as travel resumes in an era of high inflation, Spain will likely face stiff competition from several destinations that also offer sunshine and coastal vacations at similar, or lower, prices—Egypt, Greece, and Turkey, for example.

The sector also faces physical and economic threats due to climate change. The Mediterranean basin is getting warmer: the number of days above 37°C in southern Spain is expected to double by 2050 and rising temperatures increase the risk of drought, water stress, wildfires, and floods.2A Mediterranean basin without a Mediterranean climate?” McKinsey Global Institute, May 2020. Extreme weather is already evident as the pre-summer season of 2022 saw temperatures climb above 40°C in Seville.3 An increase in the number of “too hot” days could discourage tourism, particularly in peak season. For instance, a 2022 survey by a travel insurance company found that 65 percent of UK holiday makers thought Spain would be too hot to visit by 2027.4

Of course, Spain’s tourism sector cannot combat climate change alone. But this backdrop underscores the urgency to act. Globally, tourism is a significant contributor to emissions, and Spain can play a role in emissions reduction. In 2019, tourism was responsible for about 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, worldwide. Of this, the largest emissions came from domestic and international tourism in China, India, and the United States. Compared to these top three, Spain ranks at number 16 for emissions from tourism.5 Considering the size of Spain’s tourism industry, the country compares well against these destinations, but there is room for improvement.

Spain can set itself apart by prioritizing sustainability, including environmental issues such as water usage, plastic waste, carbon emissions, and social issues such as how tourism affects local communities. Globally, travelers are becoming more aware and are seeking out vacations with less impact on the environment and on local communities. Sustainability could become a key differentiator.

Furthermore, sustainable travel could draw discerning premium travelers who will likely be willing to pay for offerings that uphold their values. But efforts to draw these travelers will need to extend beyond marketing and involve real operational changes. Gen Z travelers, in particular, don’t care what tourism businesses say about their sustainability efforts, they want to see it in practice.6 Gen Zs, who typically have a heightened awareness of climate change, are looking for eco-friendly accommodation options. Skift found that 38 percent of Gen Zs across the world would consider staying in green accommodation on their next holiday, compared to the 33 percent response rate of those over 25.7

This article examines the key aspects of sustainability that are relevant to travel and tourism and suggests ways in which stakeholders across Spain’s tourism sector could prioritize and invest in sustainable offerings. Such actions can ensure that this important sector remains competitive, and help to safeguard its assets for future generations.

Spain is a leading destination, but faces strong competition and a tough operating environment

The physical and economic consequences of climate change, global economic environment, strong competition, and changing consumer preferences all put pressure on the sector. Worldwide, rising inflation could prompt consumers to cut back on travel, or “downtrade” to cheaper destinations. While “revenge travel” boosted tourism as travel restrictions eased, the threat of a looming recession could dampen appetite for travel.

European travelers want to visit beaches that are conveniently close, warm, and affordable. The largest outbound markets for sun and beach tourism include Germany, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria. Spain is a popular destination for sun and sand, accounting for almost one-third of international overnight trips to the EU’s coastal areas in 2021.8 But, Spain competes with other destinations, in the Mediterranean and beyond, that cater to these tourists.

Even if overall demand falls, select locations across the country are at risk of over-tourism. Pre-COVID-19, a World Economic Forum report placed Spain first out of 140 competitive countries in travel and tourism.9 The report warned that one-third of international arrivals are concentrated in the top ten countries, and this concentration can lead to severe pressure, and negative effects, on tourism infrastructure and services as well as local populations.

Several Spanish beach destinations have struggled with unruly visitors, and some cities have experienced an anti-tourism backlash in the wake of overcrowding.10 Authorities have stepped in to manage the situation in specific locations. For example, in 2020, Spain introduced new laws to limit alcohol consumption at all-inclusive resorts in the Balearic Islands.11And several cities, including Madrid and Barcelona, introduced stricter regulations for private short-term accommodation rental to tourists to protect the long-term housing market.12

These efforts could make tourism more sustainable for the long term. But the industry itself may be adding to conditions that make tourism unsustainable for the local workforce. Seasonality is a major hurdle in this regard. The country’s core tourism destinations have high seasonality, leading to peaks and troughs in employment. Unemployment reaches around 20 percent in the low season (exhibit).

A focus on all aspects of sustainability can improve the sector’s (and the country’s) perception and reputation—and ultimately affect tourists’ willingness to visit.

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What sustainability means for travel and tourism

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important to travelers. In 2022, found that more than 70 percent of global travelers intend to travel more sustainably over the next year (a 10 percent increase on the company’s 2021 survey) and 35 percent said that the sustainability efforts of accommodation and transport providers play a strong role in their booking decisions.13

But what does sustainable travel mean? According to the World Tourism Organization, sustainable tourism addresses the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities based on three interdependent factors: 1) social sustainability (respect for the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, support for local businesses, and levels of tourism that are acceptable to local communities); 2) environmental sustainability (measures to reduce environmental impact and preserve natural heritage and biodiversity); and 3) economic sustainability (business models that achieve economic growth without negatively impacting social, environmental, or cultural aspects of communities).14

By improving environmental and social sustainability, organizations across the travel and tourism value chain can strengthen their business models and reach economic sustainability. Without considering social and environmental factors, economic viability may be difficult to reach or maintain in the long term.

Several countries are taking an integrated approach to tourism development with the goal of becoming more resilient, sustainable, and inclusive. In some instances, this means adapting a country’s tourism offerings to reduce seasonality and the strain it puts on local infrastructure and resources. Increasing visitors in off-peak periods can lead to year-round jobs and businesses. For example, Slovenia has committed to 20 projects to transform mountain destinations into year-round resorts for active holidays outside of ski season.15 And Norway’s “Norway all year round” plan aims to spread tourist traffic across several locations and seasons. The plan intentionally does not market Norway as a cruise destination and aims to attract travelers in source markets who are available to travel all year round, and have the means to do so.16

Other country-level social and economic sustainability initiatives focus on the tourism workforce. New Zealand recently launched a transformation plan aimed at improving conditions for those who work in the tourism industry, as a basis for transforming the entire sector (see sidebar “Transforming the tourism workforce”).

Travel businesses have also taken steps to reduce the effects of seasonality on the local workforce, for example, by sharing staff. In Geneva, the Ice Castles attraction that has a four-month winter season shares staff with the Lake Geneva Ziplines & Adventures company. This provides extra work and helps to retain staff at both businesses each season.17

The social, environmental, and economic aspects of sustainability are intertwined in global consumers’ perspectives. respondents around the world said they chose sustainable options because they wanted to reduce their impact on the environment, have a more locally relevant experience, or believed that sustainable properties treat communities better.18

Spanish respondents held similar views on sustainability as their global counterparts—they are concerned about waste and energy consumption, and 79 percent intend to walk, cycle, or take public transport during future trips. Respect for local communities is important, too, as 68 percent want authentic experiences that are representative of local culture. In addition, 68 percent will go out of their way to avoid popular destinations and attractions to avoid contributing to overcrowding.19

Considering that in 2019, 45 percent of tourism spend in Spain was domestic, Spanish traveler sentiment is particularly relevant to Spain’s tourism offerings, for locals and international tourists alike.20

Globally, hospitality providers may be at risk of not meeting customer expectations around sustainability as there is a gap between what consumers want and what exists in the market. An earlier survey spanning 30 countries—Spain being one of them—found that one-quarter of accommodation providers had not implemented any sustainability measures; and for those that had, only one-third actively informed their customers about the measures they had taken—and this usually happened at check-out.21

Taking action on sustainability (and actively communicating what has been done) could bridge this gap, attract new travelers, and help Spain’s tourism sector to flourish while doing good for local communities and the planet. Much of McKinsey’s research on sustainability shows that doing well and doing good are not mutually exclusive—these actions reinforce each other. Industry-wide commitment to sustainability could help to differentiate the sector, and respond to consumer needs, thereby increasing the chances of economic sustainability.

Of course, taking action requires time, resources, and investment. Individual hotels or tourism businesses may have little incentive to redefine core offerings or invest in infrastructure to demonstrate that sustainability is important to them. But businesses that begin to differentiate themselves could reap the benefits. Many destinations in the region provide examples of how sustainable offerings can become a drawcard for visitors, and earn international acclaim and prestige (see sidebar “How sustainability-related initiatives can offer tourists a unique experience”).

green leaves blending into side of woman's face - stock photo

The path toward eco-friendly travel in China

Actions to advance sustainability across Spain’s tourism sector are emerging

Spain developed a Sustainable Tourism Strategy 2030, a national agenda to help the tourism sector address medium- and long-term challenges including socioeconomic and environmental sustainability.22Even though this national sustainability strategy is in place, there are limited mechanisms to help small businesses partake and contribute. This is particularly challenging as small- and micro-sized businesses make up the vast majority of all businesses in the country’s tourism sector. According to Statista, micro-size businesses account for around 92 percent of Spain’s travel, tourism, and hospitality businesses. Small businesses make up just over 7 percent, and medium and large businesses account for the remaining half a percent.23

This fragmentation can halt progress and collective action, for instance in emissions reduction. Spain’s large hospitality providers are making efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and many are pioneers in the field: Melia opened Menorca’s first carbon-neutral luxury hotel in 2022, showcasing carbon-neutral operations, “intelligent” energy-efficient buildings, and circular models for water resources.24 Iberostar has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030—a target that is 20 years ahead of many other international hospitality brands.25

In general, smaller and medium-size providers’ goals and targets are less ambitious than those of international peers, presumably because the economic benefits of such actions are unclear, or they may fear first-mover disadvantages like higher costs. Various Spanish hotel chains have committed to reducing emissions by 20 to 35 percent, with timelines ranging from 2030 to 2035. By comparison, many international brands have committed to net zero by 2050 and have strict measures in place to achieve this.

According to the Greenview Hotel Footprinting Tool, which calculates the carbon footprint of a hotel stay anywhere in the world, Spain is among the best-performing countries in terms of low-carbon room footprint and meeting footprint. While this tool points to a strong focus on water-, waste- and emissions-reduction in Spanish hotels, it is difficult to assess what actions many smaller hotels and other tourism businesses are taking on the sustainability front.

Even though there may not be concerted and unified action on social and environmental sustainability across the sector, success stories exist of initiatives being put in place that make sustainability a key differentiator (see sidebar “Sustainable tourism in Valencia”). Sector-wide efforts could increase investment into sustainable offerings, make these more visible to tourists, and ultimately position Spain as the destination of choice for sustainable travel.

How Spain could become a sustainable destination of choice

Individual travel and tourism businesses’ environmental and social sustainability efforts need to achieve critical mass if Spain is to become known as a leading destination for sustainability-conscious travelers. These actions are also vital to preserve the sector’s economic sustainability. Collective and concerted action is required to build momentum. All stakeholders have a role to play in addressing the sector’s rationale for action, setting a clear course, and developing the support structure to achieve it.

Identify the value at stake. The sector could take a high-level view to evaluate the status quo, benchmark where Spain could be, and quantify the costs and benefits of prioritizing sustainability throughout the sector, at scale. All stakeholders including policy makers, government, and industry could jointly develop a sustainable travel concept for the sector with a clearly articulated justification for action.

Costa Rica provides an example of a national tourism strategy focused on sustainability. The industry is aligned with national objectives to protect the country’s forests and biodiversity. National parks, nature reserves, and protected areas make up around one-quarter of Costa Rican territory and the sector promotes ecotourism and sustainable offerings that support the conservation of these areas.26

Spain’s stakeholders could also agree on industry-wide standards, as having these in place would likely accelerate the transition to sustainable tourism. Standards that align the motivations of different stakeholders and take into account the interests of all parties have a greater chance of adoption. For example, including mandatory sustainability criteria in the hotel star rating system could bring the motivations of hotel owners and operators into alignment.27 Setting unified sector sustainability targets could also boost the credibility of sustainability claims or commitments made by individual businesses.

Define a strategy. This includes establishing initiatives to address specific concerns such as decarbonization, water usage, waste management, or overcrowding and setting targets and practical actions to achieve them. For instance, one initiative in Costa Rica—as part of its conservation effort—is a ban on single-use plastic in national parks, biological reserves, and national monuments.28

In another example, Iceland set a strategy to reduce seasonality—a long-standing challenge for Icelandic tourism. In 2010, close to half of travelers visited the country during the summer months of June, July, or August. The travel industry, with support from the government and others, launched an international marketing campaign to promote Iceland as a year-round destination. Winter activities such as viewing the Northern lights, snowmobiling, and glacial treks became popular with visitors. Between 2010 and 2019 the share of tourists that visited in summer fell from around 50 to 34 percent, while tourist arrivals continued to grow.29

Once the strategic direction is set, sector-wide initiatives can be put in place. In New Zealand, a collaborative and concerted effort involving public and private organizations gave rise to the Tiaki Promise, a pledge that encourages visitors to take care of the country’s natural resources: “While traveling in New Zealand, I will care for land, sea, and nature, treading lightly and leaving no trace; travel safely, showing care and consideration for all; and respect culture, traveling with an open heart and mind.” One collaborator in the initiative, Air New Zealand, released an in-flight safety video that introduced the promise to travelers.30

It is also important to rank individual measures to address challenges to ensure that competing priorities do not hinder progress. Collective action will have the most impact if all stakeholders are committed to the same issues.

Many travel and tourism businesses across the world have developed and successfully marketed sustainable products and services, such as low-impact tourist offerings that are less harmful to the environment or local communities. In fact, many travel guides publish editions dedicated to sustainable offerings.31 Spain’s tourism providers could follow suit. And the sector could make travelers more aware of existing sustainable travel options through communications campaigns to draw sustainability-conscious travelers from across the globe.

Travel and tourism businesses could also extend sustainability efforts across their value chains. Examples include working with suppliers to ensure linen and towels are sustainably produced, procuring energy-efficient equipment, or engaging local communities by sourcing local food suppliers. There are also opportunities for businesses to collaborate and design sustainable offerings that combine products and services, such as sustainability-focused tours featuring carbon-neutral accommodation, electric ground transportation, and trips to local businesses.

Globally, hotel chains have partnered with sustainability-related businesses or action groups to advance their own sustainability initiatives. These actions also help to strengthen the hotel’s brand and reputation for sustainability consciousness. For instance, the luxury hotel, resort, and spa operator Six Senses partnered with the United States Coalition on Sustainability and the action platform SustainChain in an initiative to remove single-use and disposable plastics from its operations.32 And as part of its pathway to net zero, the Radisson Hotel Group partnered with Ecovadis, a sustainability ratings provider, in a collaboration that aims to extend the EcoVadis rating to the group’s global supply chain.33

Spanish tourism and hospitality providers might consider similar collaborative partnerships and initiatives to build momentum for industry-wide action and raise global travelers’ awareness that Spain is committed to sustainability.

Provide guidelines and support. Smaller businesses may lack the knowledge or resources necessary to act on sustainability. Actions could be taken to bridge knowledge gaps and secure funding, at government or industry association level. Funding programs, incentive schemes, or financial instruments can accelerate adoption of sustainable solutions, especially for smaller businesses. For example, South Africa’s Green Tourism Incentive Program targets small tourism businesses like lodges and guest houses. The program funds water- and energy-efficiency assessments and recommends the optimum green solution for the business. The bulk of the cost to implement the solution is also funded by the program.34

The industry could also draw on available resources and convene stakeholders to share knowledge and expertise. For instance, the World Tourism Organization provides resources and guidelines for building a circular economy, reducing food waste, and tackling plastic pollution.35

Regulation could be put in place to support change. Regions or cities could look to establish regulations that ensure tourism activity is environmentally and socially sustainable. Progress has been made in this regard, as the Law on Circularity and Sustainability in Tourism, approved by Parliament in May 2022, made the Balearic Islands the first sustainable destination by law.36 This regulation protects seasonal tourism workers, considers local residents’ quality of life (for instance by blocking an increase in the number of beds for the next four years), reduces waste, and protects natural resources. It will also introduce a hotel classification system based on the concrete actions taken to promote sustainable tourism.

Regulatory bodies and industry associations could also support business owners with guidance, encourage implementation through incentives, and enforce regulations through penalties for non-compliance.

Spain’s tourism sector has an opportunity to further develop existing sustainability efforts, thereby protecting the future of the sector. A sector-wide focus on environmental and social sustainability can also act as a key differentiator and draw visitors who are consciously trying to travel more responsibly. Furthermore, all stakeholders could benefit if existing initiatives, and new investments, are made more visible and attractive to tourists.

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