Tourism and water sustainability: caring for your golden goose
Tourism is a strategic sector for some of the world's major economies, contributing to increasing the wealth of many countries. However, it also entails an inevitable increase in resource use, especially water. For this reason, the tourism sector strives every year to implement practices that ensure the sustainability of the resource and contribute to minimizing the effects of climate change.
Historically, water has been one of the most sought-after attractions for the tourism industry. Swimming pools, lakes, nature bathing areas, beaches, hot springs... Holidays always become a perfect time to enjoy one of our most important natural resources. However, our enjoyment of water should always be within a context of stewardship and sustainability of the resource, since, although water may be the highlight of our vacation, it is a vulnerable resource and the tourism sector is well aware of this.
Proof of this are the practices carried out in the sector, from saving water in laundry and cleaning tasks, to the reuse of water in irrigation and green areas; anything goes to reduce the water footprint.
Tourism, a major water user
Tourism is a great ally economically. In fact, in countries such as Spain, it has been the number one sector injecting money into the country's economy. While it is true that the COVID-19 crisis has led to a decrease in tourism, climate change is also beginning to be a driving factor in reducing supply and demand in the hospitality industry.
A tourist can consume, according to data from the World Tourism Organization, more than 400 litres of water per day
Before the health crisis, tourism generated around 8% of France's GDP, representing 2 million direct and indirect jobs. In the case of Spain, where tourism is a strategic sector, tourism activity before the pandemic represented 12.4% of GDP, falling, according to data from the National Institute of Statistics, to 5.5% in 2020. In particularly touristy areas of Spain, such as the Balearic Islands, the Costa Brava or the Canary Islands, the contribution of the tourism sector to GDP increases substantially.
It so happens that in Europe many of the areas most visited by tourists are also areas with a high level of water scarcity, especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The lack of rainfall in arid areas and the need to invest in new wastewater treatment and reuse infrastructure, strain the availability of the resource, in a scenario where a tourist consumes much more water than a regular resident.
In fact, while a person consumes between 50 and 200 litres of water per day in Europe, a tourist can consume, according to data from the World Tourism Organization, more than 400 litres of water per day.
Thus, tourism depends on the availability of water and, at the same time, affects how it is used by tourists at the destination. The increasingly limited availability of the resource makes it imperative to introduce changes in water resource management strategies.
Small gestures lead to big savings
For several years, the tourism industry, and hotel complexes in particular, have been looking for strategies to reduce the sector's impact on the environment and for new ways to sustainably manage their activity. Moreover, in economic terms, water savings have a direct impact on profits, so water-saving strategies are an important pillar in management plans.
Wastewater management is key for the tourism sector, since the survival of beaches, rivers and other water resources depends on it
With regard to rooms, measures such as reducing the tap flow rate, installing dual-flush cisterns, raising awareness of the frequency of towel and linen washing and, above all, establishing a management plan and carrying out a detailed study of consumption, can improve the profitability of the business and make a big difference in water savings.
However, the bulk of water consumption in hotels does not occur in the rooms, but in the kitchens. Cooking responsibly, promoting zero-kilometre cooking or using fewer and smaller dishes to limit water wastage are small measures that almost all hotels can implement and that contribute substantially to a real water-saving strategy.
On the other hand, wastewater management is key for the tourism sector, since the survival of beaches, rivers and other water resources, which in most cases are the main tourist attraction, depends on proper management of wastewater. In addition, the infrastructure that treats these waters is sometimes particularly stressed by the high demand for water treatment, since often the population served by the treatment plants doubles with the arrival of tourists, without this implying an increase in the number of treatment plants.
Many places also take advantage of this resource, and already use reclaimed water to irrigate their gardens and green areas, as cooling water, and to wash municipal vehicles or the streets.
Technology at the service of tourism
Tourism can also be a strategic sector to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Thus, concerning SDG 6, focused on achieving access to clean water and universal sanitation, this sector can play a crucial role, since the efficient use of water, as well as wastewater management and water quality control, supported by new and more effective technological tools, can be key to safeguarding our most precious resource.
Digitalisation is indeed a decisive ally of the sector, as it facilitates processes and actions to control and reduce the water footprint, such as management of non-revenue water.
Tourism can be a strategic sector to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, playing a crucial role to achieve SDG 6
According to a study by the Chair of Tourism of the University of La Laguna, in Tenerife (Spain), undetected water leaks can lead to an increase of up to 40% in water consumption. Digitalisation, as well as new tools that allow detailed monitoring of water consumption, can reduce these losses substantially.
Digitalisation can also help with facility management thanks to smart meters. These meters provide real-time information on water consumption, which can be translated into specific savings strategies, establishing, for example, specific schedules to water gardens or do the laundry. Water quality control, as well as monitoring in areas of scarcity, are also challenges that can be solved with the support of new digital tools.
Although these new strategies in the tourism sector have an impact on direct water savings, only good practices and public awareness can ensure the success of the relationship between tourism and water sustainability.