The summery scene is familiar: scorching sun, imperious thirst… And an empty wallet. Walk to the bar, with a face of circumstances: “Can I have a glass of water?” In high season and beach area, the probability of receiving a yes decreases. Serving tap water in bars and restaurants is not mandatory in all of Spain (it is, with some nuances, in Navarra, Castilla y León and the Balearic Islands), but it will begin to be when the new waste law is approved, whose draft published in June the Government, with the idea that it will be in force in 2021. Among hoteliers, busy these months with the bleeding in the accounts that the coronavirus has meant, there is a division of opinions according to geography.
Tap water to save money and garbage: bottlers protest their 1.2 billion-a-year business
In the middle of the territory of the sun, the Balearic Islands, there is already an autonomous law that requires since 2019 to give “non-bottled water for free and complementary to the offer of the same establishment” as long as it is drinkable, a caveat that will also incorporate the state regulation. “The water here is not drunk, it is very bad,” says Alfonso Robledo, president of Restauración Mallorca, the sectorial employer on the island, who believes that the new law “is going to stop, with this COVID-19”. Regarding the regional norm, there are no calls for attention from the authorities. “No inspections or anything like that […] First, there are no tourists asking for water, and residents do not drink water from the tap or at home, [no] they are going to drink the one from a bar, “he says. The Palma City Council announced at the beginning of the year an investment of 4.2 million euros to improve the quality and taste of tap water, while insisting that it is perfectly suitable for consumption.
In Menorca, what was said by Robledo is confirmed for the largest island in the Balearic Islands. Although each visitor who stays in hotels or apartments pays three euros per night as a tourist tax (collected by the Balearic Government), it is not easy for bars and restaurants to serve tap water. The same establishments that ask to reuse towels to preserve the environment refuse to offer glasses of water to customers. In the case of the Cala Galdana hotel, a four-star hotel located at the foot of the sea in that tourist town, the waiters offer bottles at 1.80 euros to each client who asks for a glass of water. The same happens in other establishments in the area as this wording has verified during the month of August.
The recourse to the supposed poor quality of tap water is not, in any case, the main argument of the hoteliers. Bottled water has good profit margins and tap water, although much lower, also comes at a cost. “I know of no case of anyone who has been asked to give away their work. Never. It is that water does not consist in the customer asking for water and giving it to him for free. It is accompanied by work, means, space, expenses ”, says the president of the Spanish Hospitality Business Confederation, José Luis Yzuel, very contrary to the norm. The manager understands that the water jug is a matter of habit more French than Spanish and that it should not be imposed.
In Navarra, offering water has been mandatory for a year. Another law, approved in 2018 also with saving waste as a philosophy, is clear: “Customers will always be offered the possibility of a container with tap water and glasses for their consumption, free of charge and complementary to the offer of the own establishment ”. Although the norm gave the municipalities 12 months to adapt their ordinances, the Irache consumer association visited 30 establishments in Pamplona that same year and was only denied the glass in three.
In Castilla y León the regulations are more interpretable. A 2016 decree regulating the hotel industry prohibits charging for the use of toilets and “the consumption of non-bottled water”, although it does not expressly say that it must be offered. The vice president of the Confederation of Hospitality and Tourism of Castilla y León, María José Hernández, was not aware of the rule, but considers it superfluous. “We always provide tap water. No one denies a glass of water to anyone. It seems absurd to me, it is an essential good ”, she reasons, and recalls a pilot project with the Valladolid City Council to put water decanters in restaurants. “It lasted one fall,” she says.
The president of the Spanish confederation is also unaware of consumer complaints. “I think there is not much incidence, because there is no habit either. Yes, someone will insist on asking for tap water, there are places where it is very good; in Madrid you can drink perfectly, but not in others ”, emphasizes José Luis Yzuel, who insists:“ Nobody is denied a glass of water, but by obligation and by law… Those are big words ”.
Precisely, the Madrid Assembly in December approved a non-law proposal to promote the distribution of water in public establishments, which only went ahead when the text, proposed by Más Madrid, changed the verb “guarantee” to “promote”, at the request right.
The council also received an uneven answer in the Madrid hospitality industry. Meanwhile, on social networks, bills of scandalous prices parade on terraces and on the seafront for a bottle of water. And more or less frequent tricks of some places that do not sell liter bottles to increase the margin in the smaller packages. The sector has always defended that they are exceptions and encourages reporting in those cases where consumers perceive abuse.
In Catalonia, the Generalitat ruled out regulating the issue by law in 2018, so the decision remains in the hands of the hotelier, as in other communities without their own regulations. In Cantabria, for example, when ordering jugs of tap water in several restaurants this summer, the response was similar: not to use a resounding ‘no’, but to reformulate the proposal to “large water bottles”. The meals were for eight people, from the menu and with other drinks such as soft drinks and beers.
The justification for the standards varies. In the Balearic Islands and Navarra, also in the state draft, the reason is ecological. In Castilla y León, to improve tourist quality. Andalusia wanted to go a step further and in 2018 it came to debate in Parliament a law to promote healthy life that proposed guaranteeing “fresh water” in restaurants. The project, which had signs of going forward with a lot of consensus (the PP had only presented a minor amendment), declined when the government of PSOE and Ciudadanos broke down, and the popular in the Junta are now betting on a “strategy” without rank of law.
With more or less haste, the tendency is to guarantee the jug on the table. Parallel to Spanish law, the European Union has a very advanced directive that will require giving it free or charging it very cheaply. The rule has been delayed because of the coronavirus, but it is expected to be ready before the end of the year.