By Catherine Brahic
Planning a sunny holiday, perhaps in Spain? Think that strips of high-rise hotels are an eyesore and an environmental crime? They may not be as bad as you think. According to a study in Spain, concentrated tourist towns can make more efficient use of local water resources than the more discreet villas.
David Sauri of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain, and colleagues made a case study of Benidorm and its surroundings on the Alicante coast. Benidorm is one of the biggest tourist centres in Southern Europe.
Originally a small fishing village of 2000 people, it is now home to the tallest buildings in Spain and a population of 60,000. Five million visitors pass through each year and more British holidaymakers go to Benidorm each year than visit the whole of Italy.
By Sauri’s own account it is not a very pretty sight, which no doubt explains why more and more tourists are opting to rent villas and houses inland. But when Sauri and his colleagues looked at which type of tourism used water and waste more efficiently, they were surprised to find that the eco-conscious tourist would be better off heading for the Benidorm high-rise hotels.
Thirsty swimming pools
On average, guests at these hotels use between 174 and 361 litres of water per day. House and apartment renters average between 72 and 359 litres, but the extremes are much greater. Single houses can go through over 2000 litres a day if they have swimming pools and lawns.
This is precisely where tourism is headed, says Sauri. “The trend is to opt for larger and larger lawns and swimming pools and the type of accommodation which is associated with golf tourism,” he says. “Over the last five years there has been enormous growth in new housing – most of it single housing built inland.”
The problem with such dispersed accommodation is not only that swimming pool and lawns need more water than a hotel room. “Think of the amount of pipes and power lines you need to put down,” he says, adding that a larger distribution network is also more likely to break down and is more costly to service.
“It is counterintuitive, but when you look at the figures for water and domestic waste as well, dense settlements may be ugly and cheap but environmentally appear to be more efficient than the quality tourism.”
Urban heat islands
That is not to say that high-rise coastlines are the greenest option. Urban development means laying down roads and pavement. This disrupts the natural hydrology cycle, preventing water from being absorbed by the soil, and creating a bubble of heat – an effect known as the urban heat island.
Many natural attractions such as the Galapagos Islands and the West Coast Trail in British Columbia, Canada, limit the number of visitors in an effort to encourage ecotourism. But the growing global middle class means the number of people with a holiday budget and a desire to see the world is increasing.
Sauri’s research suggests that for the Mediterannean and other regions where water is scarce – especially during the summer – the best way to reap the economical benefits while preserving natural resources is to think urban.
Journal reference: Land Use Policy, DOI: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2008.07.002