In 2019, the year of tourism’s boom before Covid’s bust, more than 1.4bn tourists roamed the globe, around 300m of them arriving in southern and Mediterranean Europe. Spain – the world’s second most popular tourist destination behind France – has long been the favoured choice of British holidaymakers, with Mallorca a prime target.
But with popularity comes pressure, and movements in the mass tourism sphere are under way. In recent years, the Balearic Islands government has levied a sustainable tourism tax of up to €4 per day on visitors. Last month, it passed a law that requires all tourist businesses on the islands to set out circular economy measures to tackle waste, as well as workers’ rights.
With just under 14m tourist arrivals on Mallorca alone in 2019, and numbers recovering by almost 50 per cent last year, the goal is to have a framework in place to ensure responsible and sustainable growth after Covid-19.
A long history of tourism
The island has been at the vanguard of Spanish tourism, with a tourist office in operation since 1905 and the first package holidaymakers arriving in the Fifties. Some of the world’s biggest hotel brands were founded in Mallorca – Barcelo, Melia, Riu and Iberostar – and are still headquartered in the capital, Palma.
The week before COP26 got under way last October, I visited Mallorca to see how the family-run Iberostar group was adapting to meet environmental demands. With more than 100 hotels in 16 countries – some sleeping up to 1,000 guests – the group has set its own 2030 Agenda to progress towards a circular economy, eliminate single-use plastics, improve coastal health and source seafood responsibly.
Iberostar is part of the bedrock of package holidays such as those sold by easyJet Holidays. Six months ago, the operator launched a strategy to ensure its holidays directly support sustainable practices by the end of 2025. As a member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), easyJet Holidays is encouraging its hotel partners to achieve certification by a GSTC-accredited body, which will be clearly labelled for customers. It says it is “committed to supporting hotel partners in meeting these criteria”.
EasyJet Holidays has also partnered with Oxford University to establish a Sustainable Development Goals Impact Lab, recruiting 20 graduates to identify challenges and opportunities for sustainable tourism. The UK’s biggest tour operator, Tui, has launched a similar pilot project focused on the Greek island of Rhodes.
Ultimately, the goal is for mass tourism to become sustainable – no easy feat, but one which could have a far greater impact than smaller-scale, higher-end initiatives aimed at customers who can afford to pay for conservation. A significant challenge will be to avoid passing on associated costs to price-sensitive holidaymakers.
Ambitions of scale
However, Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, sees the potential: “There is no reason why mainstream tourism cannot be as sustainable as niche tourism – in fact in some ways it could be more so. Densely planned accommodation in resorts can be more efficient in terms of waste, water and energy while limiting the impacts of overtourism. Buying power could be used to support local food producers and encourage nature-friendly farming.”
The scale of the Iberostar Alcudia Park hotel, on the north-east coast of Mallorca, does not scream low impact, but certainly conforms to dense planning. Inside the horseshoe-shaped complex are 366 rooms, hugging two pools that creep up to the turquoise water of Playa de Muro, a Blue Flag beach and one of the longest on the island.
Under the guidance of vice-chairman and chief sustainability officer Gloria Fluxa – named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2018 – Iberostar signed the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action on Tourism at COP26. Each signatory has committed to delivering a climate action plan this year that will tackle decarbonisation and regeneration. The objective is to secure meaningful actions to reach net zero “as soon as possible” before 2050.
When single-use plastics were working their way back into daily life via Covid PPE and packaging, Iberostar eliminated all single-use plastics from its resorts. Combined with other efforts as part of its Wave of Change programme, the group was awarded Germany’s Eco Trophea 2021.
At its four-star Alcudia Park, hotel rooms each have a glass decanter and water stations are plugged into each corridor that tally the number of plastic bottles saved by refills. Large containers of organic toiletries are provided in the bathrooms and colour-coded recycling stations are positioned around the resort. Less encouragingly, I saw tourist shops opposite the hotel filled with sun-bleached, end-of-season lilos, buckets, spades and cheap souvenirs – a repository of desolate plastic.
My October half-term stay at the hotel came at the tail end of the summer season. Free ice creams were handed out in the afternoon and the pool water was decidedly chilly. One rainy day, I enquired about local activities at the front desk and was disappointed to receive only recommendations of a cinema and shopping mall, having hoped to hear more about local businesses that would surely welcome the trade.
Had the weather been more favourable, I’d have hopped on one of the hotel’s fleet of bicycles – stationed beneath its impressive marine mural by Mallorquin artist Joan Aguiló – to explore. Instead, I took a cab to the deserted medieval old town to wander its pretty, cobbled streets and ramparts.
With most of the local restaurants closed for winter, I ate almost entirely at the hotel’s restaurant. Iberostar now sources 70 per cent of its seafood responsibly across the chain and supports local fisheries; I enjoyed their catch in an excellent paella.
Mallorquin dishes were part of the extensive buffet offering each evening, such as smoky sobrasada sausage and sweet ensaimada bread. Guests weren’t piling their plates high, but uneaten dishes were regularly scraped from serving platters into bins mid-service. However, Iberostar is working with tech company Winnow Solutions, which helps kitchens tackle food waste, and improvements should follow this season.
As the masses begin to trickle back to Mallorca, there’s potential for meaningful change. It won’t be easy or straightforward, but the results could be significant. And while not all visitors will demand sustainable practices, with major players getting to work behind the scenes, those mindsets could change fast. As Justin Francis says: “Unless mainstream tourism truly delivers on sustainability, we won’t deliver the change that is needed.”
EasyJet Holidays offers a week’s half board at the Iberostar Alcudia Park in Mallorca from £411pp including flights from Gatwick, 23kg of luggage per person, and transfers.
All over-18s must provide proof of vaccination to enter Spain. Those aged 12-17 can provide a negative PCR test, while under-12s are exempt.
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