Do we have too many visitors? The impact of tourism on fragile territories


“Sustainable tourism with 29 million passengers every year is impossible, even if they are all environmentalists and ride bicycles. We have to stop and go back. It’s like when a car goes wildly down the highway: first it has to brake and then drive slower “.


The UN warns that no one is safe from the damage of the climate crisis caused by humanity

The UN warns that no one is safe from the damage of the climate crisis caused by humanity

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This is Amadeu Corbera, president of the GOB Mallorca, an environmental organization that has spent decades fighting for the environment and biodiversity of the ‘older sister’ of the Balearic Islands. “We suffer a great saturation and overcrowding. The archipelago is a very small territory, with very limited resources, from water to energy … We have passed the limit of what is reasonable,” he adds.

The celebration of COP26 in Glasgow puts the focus once again on the consequences of mass tourism and its contribution to the climate crisis. Aftermath that can intensely affect fragile territories, where sustainability hangs by a thread.

The Balearic Islands exemplify this challenge: with a limited size, it bears a heavy demographic load every summer as a consequence of an economic model based on mass tourism. The calculation is simple: the more visitors, the greater the contribution to the climate crisis and the greater the impact on the ecosystem.

“Either we are sustainable or we will not be”

The Balearic Government is convinced that it is possible to combine tourism with the preservation of the environment. “Either we are sustainable or we will not be. Tourism should be the subject of a deep debate,” says Juan Pedro Yllanes, vice president of the Government, who will attend as part of the Spanish Delegation of COP26.

In Glasgow, Yllanes will address, among other issues, “resilience” to the climate crisis in island regions, such as the Balearic Islands or the island of Dominica. “We have to open a serious debate on our economic model, based on the realization that the engine will continue to be tourism. The Government is extremely concerned about proposing a different type of tourism to achieve sustainability.”

The Executive of Francina Armengol has taken several steps in this regard: it has approved an ‘ecotax’, has legislated for protect the seabed and has approved measures to limit the circulation of cars and to reduce the consumption of plastics. Yllanes defends this management: “This catalog of measures is based on an essential instrument, the Climate Change Law, which led us to the declaration of a climate emergency. It is not a symbolic statement. ”

Ecologists, however, believe that it is not enough: “It has not been compensated with a reduction in tourist places or a decrease in the number of tourists. The approved laws go in the right direction, but without a comprehensive look to rethink the economic model, based on infinite growth, these rules are without effect “, says Corbera.

100 billion tons of CO₂ in 20 years

According the data of the environmental entity Terraferida, Palma Airport has received 194.5 million passengers in the last 20 years, some 1.4 million air operations. The association, after crossing the Eurostat data and the coordinates of the airports of origin, calculates that the kilometers traveled of the flights from these airports to Palma (and the return) add up to 2,835,706,028 km in 20 years. It is the distance to go from Earth to Saturn and back.

If we multiply this distance by the number of passengers transported in the round trip and by 90, we obtain the grams of CO₂ emitted (90 g CO₂ per km and passenger is the most common average): CO₂ emissions add up to 99,930,550,043,300 tons (100 trillion tons in 20 years). If this carbon were released suddenly, it would raise CO₂ in the troposphere by 15 ppm.

The GOB Mallorca criticizes that, far from proposing a decrease in the number of passengers, AENA is thinking of growing: “It is going to reorganize the airport and foresees a normality of 29 million visitors a year from 2026. Yes in 2019, what It was the record year in all of history, there were some 29 million passengers, now this record scenario would become the minimum. It is a disguised growth. ”

The Government, for its part, recognizes that it is necessary to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and harmful gases. Yllanes focuses on transport and thermal power plants. “We have enormous pressure from private land transport, 0.87 vehicles per inhabitant, an unsustainable ratio for such a small and fragile territory,” he says.

Is there room for so many tourists?

With the arrival of summer, the population of the Balearic Islands doubles: of the 1,171,543 inhabitants registered in the archipelago (2020 IBESTAT data) to the 2,039,687 people who are part of the floating population in high season (this figure represents the peak of the floating population in the summer of 2019, the pre-pandemic).

The big question is: is there room for so many tourists? For Corbera, no: “We can have sustainable tourism, but not with these figures. There is a limitation of tourist places, but it is not effective. Currently, since we are saturated, we have not yet reached those maximum tourist places. That is, there is room for growth “.

Destruction of natural spaces

It is not only the plane, it is also the ship: the arrival of cruise ships to the Balearic Islands has multiplied in recent years, despite protests from environmental groups. In 2019, data from Puertos del Estado revealed that the Balearic Islands was the Spanish destination with the most cruise ships (818) and the second Spanish destination for cruise tourism (2,656,443 people).

The proliferation of nautical tourism on the islands has brought with it another consequence: the destruction of posidonia, whose grasslands are an important source of oxygen and help maintain the famous crystal clear waters of the archipelago. This environmental jewel, known as the “lung of the Mediterranean”, creates five times more oxygen than one from the Amazon rainforest and is dying as a result of tourism and pollution.

The discharge of sewage and ship anchors (which carry everything in their path) have considerably reduced the meadows of this plant in recent years. The Government has approved a law to protect posidonia and the grasslands are being repopulated, but the GOB Mallorca warns that, without a decrease in anchoring and boats and without sufficient resources to monitor, the law loses effectiveness.

‘Water suitcases’ to raise awareness

Another consequence of the climate crisis is the lack of water: according to IBESTAT data, ENLARGE.

[Gráfico sequía histórica Baleares]

[Gráfico consumo de agua]

The Government, aware of the consumption of water associated with tourism, promoted a campaign in 2019 at the Palma Airport: some suitcases that rolled along the collection tapes, comparing the water of the archipelago with other places. For example, in summer, while in Santiago it rains 60 liters per square meter, in the Balearic Islands only 12. “I did not know that in the Balearic Islands there are no rivers or lakes,” says a tourist. “I don’t know where you get all the water from,” says another.


A ‘green’ energy future

Yllanes defends that the future of the islands passes, among other ways, by changing the energy model -for example, The Balearic Islands have created a public electricity company-. Renewable energies play a fundamental role in this energy transition project: “We want to have 25% renewable energy in 2023”, says the minister.

“We also have an exciting project, which has the support of Ursula Von der Leyen: ‘Green Hysland’, the production of green hydrogen in Mallorca, which we hope will become a reality by the end of the year. It means a commitment to the development of the renewable as the only way to guarantee the future of future generations in this absolutely privileged territory, but extremely fragile due to its insular condition “, he adds.

Precisely the GOB Mallorca has registered a popular legislative initiative in the Balearic Parliament so that the administrations take into account the future environmental impact of the measures they take in the present, as Corbera points out: “It would oblige the institutions to contemplate intergenerational justice in all its plans and actions. It is a pioneering law in the Spanish State. ”

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