Tourism is one of the greatest transformers of a country’s economy, its landscape and its customs. The effect is especially dramatic in countries or regions where tourism expands rapidly, where the economy is not strong or diversified, with low levels of income and which enjoy resources which are particularly attractive to the tourist industry (principally unspoilt natural areas). This is true of many countries, including those of the Mediterranean.

This growth model affects even the tourism industry itself: a report by the Spanish tourist board, Execeltur, demonstrated the devastating effect that urban development has had on tourism, destroying the beauty of the region and leading to unprecedented overpopulation.

Tourism and the economy

In many parts of the world today, and in some Mediterranean countries in particular (Spain, Italy, Greece, etc.), tourism is one of the most important tools for generating economic activity. This is the case not only in sparsely populated regions or those with few other resources; it is also true of cities of all sizes in regions with few natural attractions. Everywhere, tourism is seen as an easy way to earn a living. Why tourism and not another activity?

Tourism is regarded as an effective driver of economic development, as it encourages other, more consumer-based productive activities. Tourism increases the value of all a region’s resources, brings in foreign currencies and is labour intensive, creating employment.

However, this form of economic development has a number of disadvantages:

  • The jobs generated are mostly seasonal (although this is changing), low-skilled and temporary. In the European Union, the wages earned in the tourism sector are 20% lower than in other sectors.[1]In the Dominican Republic, a country where wages are generally low, in the tourism sector they are 16% lower than the average. [2] In the Balearic Islands, 90% of employment contracts in the sector are temporary.[3]
  • Tourism may be given priority over other social needs in local budgeting. A study showed that Spanish municipalities where tourism is important tend to spend more on security and cleaning and less on education and health.[4]
  • Land, water, food and other goods tend to become more expensive.
  • Communal assets and traditional resources may be offered to tourists and denied to locals. Young farmers in Catalonia’s El Penedès region find it difficult to rent land as older people, having seen the value of land for residential tourism rise, do not sell or rent their land in the hope that it will be redesignated and therefore worth more. [5]. The Dominican Republic’s twenty-four golf courses use twice as much water as the country’s entire industrial sector. 1[6]. Natural areas on the island of Roatán, in Honduras, have been protected to attract tourists, restricting locals’ hunting and fishing rights. I’ll stop hunting iguanas when they stop dredging to build new marinas and hotels and fishing [prawns] to extinction, said one local fisherman. [7]
  • Relying too heavily on tourism carries the same dangers as any other form of dependence: the region is at the mercy of price fluctuations and the vagaries of a sector where regions are in ever greater competition with each other. Tourism generates 80% of the Canary Islands’ GDP and 75% of jobs. [8]
  • North to South tourism generates much more money in the source countries than the destination countries. According to World Bank estimates, 55% of the profits from tourism return to Northern countries, and local elites take the other 45%. Tourism companies also have a strong presence in another type of paradise: tax havens. Sol Meliá has holdings in 22 companies with their headquarters in tax havens.

Tourism and us

Tourism allows us to get to know other cultures and ways of life, but the differences between cultures are constantly diminishing as societies become more homogenous (the same chains of restaurants and cafés, shops, dress styles, theme parks, etc.). Tourism, in fact, often serves as a spearhead, opening up the way for an invasion by Western culture.

One of the clearest examples of the effects of tourism on host societies is its tendency to speed up changes that deprive local cultural features of their original significance, leaving just their external form, so they become just another marketable item. In Kenya, tribespeople often perform dances and rituals for tourists, stripped of their cultural context. Fleeting and overwhelmingly commercial contacts between people of different cultures do not allow us to get to know each other but rather help to create stereotypes. The Spanish botijo, a water bottle of unglazed earthenware, is now glazed to make it more attractive, which means it can no longer serve its true function of keeping water cool.

Tourism and the landscape

Ironically, one of the very factors that bring tourism to a region, its landscape, is the thing that suffers most following this influx. We are all aware of the highly damaging effect of tourism on our surroundings: the enormous environmental impact of transport, urbanisation and the degradation of natural habitats (eminently exemplified by many parts of the Mediterranean coast), the transformation of cities, etc. The Vall Fosca is one of the last near-virgin valls, or valleys, of the Catalan Pyrenees. Espui, a small village of just a hundred or so inhabitants, is being swallowed up by the Vallfosca Resort Ski & Golf with almost 1,000 new homes, hotels and apartments (7,400 beds in total), a golf course and ski slopes. It will be the first mountain tourism complex to remain open 365 days a year. [9]The golf course is currently being built.[10] Thanks to tax breaks provided by many countries, investments in hotels can be recouped in less than five years. There is thus little incentive to consider the long-term impacts in decision-making processes.

In a fortnight’s trip to Cyprus, a holidaymaker from London consumes half of the natural resources that they would consume in an entire year if their activities were sustainable.[11]


The journey to our holiday destination is responsible for a large part of the environmental impact of the trip. Apart from the infrastructures involved, the following issues arise:

Unfair distribution A one-hour flight generates more CO2 emissions per passenger than an inhabitant of Bangladesh generates in an entire year. 22 20% of the world’s population uses 60% of the energy consumed in transport.[12]

Plane and car, the worst of the lot 74% of journeys in the EU in 2006 were made by car, 9% by plane and 14% in terrestrial public transport (bus and train).[13] These last consume three times less energy per passenger than cars and six times less than flying.[14] Given the area of the atmosphere in which planes release their CO2, the greenhouse effect is between two and five times stronger than for CO2 released at ground level.

Air travel prioritised Air travel is the fastest growing transport sector in Spain, expanding by 53% between 1991 and 2001.[15] This is not surprising, given the low prices, but how are these prices possible?

Air travel is highly subsidised as a ‘strategic sector’: transport is vital if a region is not to be left out of the development loop. VAT is not levied on air tickets, kerosene is not taxed (the tax on a flight from Mallorca to London should be around €90) and airport management company AENA is publicly owned, i.e. the Spanish state pays the salaries of the country’s air traffic controllers. The signatory countries to the Kyoto Protocol have to account for their CO2 emissions, but plane flights are exempt.

The cost of transport In monetary terms, transport becomes ever cheaper, but ever more expensive in terms of energy. A return flight to Buenos Aires is the equivalent of driving 10,000 kilometres by car or travelling to work by bus for three years, and this is without taking into account the fact that emissions directly into the upper atmosphere have a greater effect on climate change.

There are websites that clearly illustrate the energy cost of different forms of transport: (provides ample figures and illustrations), Even the World Tourism Organization recommends that transoceanic trips should last three to four weeks and trips within Europe should be taken by train.[16].


This is the other main impact of tourism, not least because of its close links to property development.

Hotels These are in general very wasteful of resources, especially water and energy. On average, hotels in the Caribbean use three to four times more energy and 9 times more water per person than the average Spanish home.[17]

Second residences The property development and tourism sectors feed directly off each other to enlarge the stock of second residences, of which there are an estimated 3.6 million in Spain, half of them owned by foreigners. 20% of foreign visitors use this type of accommodation, while 65% of domestic tourists stay in second homes, half of them in homes they own themselves, the other half in the homes of friends and family.[18]

Second residences are a key factor in the underuse of housing, the expansion of urban districts and higher home prices. In one year, more houses are built in Spain than in the UK, France and Germany combined, which have four times the population. Spain has the highest number of empty homes in Europe.[19]

[1] International Labour Organization.

[2] UN: National Human Development Report. Dominican Republic 2005.

[3] Diario de Ibiza newspaper, 27 November 2004.

[4] A. Costa: Análisis de los efectos del turismo sobre los gastos públicos locales: aplicación al caso de los municipios españoles. 7th Applied Economics Meeting, Vigo, 2004.

[5] El País newspaper, 23 March 2007.

[6] Susan C. Stonich: Political ecology of tourism. Annals of Tourism Research magazine, vol. 25 No. 1, January 1998.

[7] National Statistics Institute (INE).

[8] La Mañana newspaper, 30 May 2006.

[9] Opposition to the project: Vall Fosca Activa platform,

[10] World Wildlife Fund: Holiday Footprinting: A Practical Tool for Responsible Tourism March 2002. Available from:

[11] Dante (Network for Sustainable Tourism Development) ‘AG Rio+10’ working group: Red Card for Tourism? Edited by the authors, 2002.

[12] Pimiento Verde magazine, spring 2006.

[14] See the section ‘Herramientas’ in issue No. 10 of Opcions.

[15] Eurostat: Panorama of transport – Statistical overview of transport in the European Union.

[16] La Vanguardia newspaper, 19 February 2007.

[17] Based on figures taken from the UN National Human Development Report 2005.

[18] Figures provided at the 6th International Residential Tourism Trade Fair in Marbella by its chairman.

[19] ‘La vivienda en España’. El País newspaper, 2 November 2005.