Sustainable Tourism in Portugal and Spain

What does sustainable travel mean in the Iberian Peninsula, and what are Portugal and Spain doing to promote it? Find out how both countries fair on the environmental front and how you can reduce your environmental impact when you visit.

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The waves of pent-up travel energy unleashed after the COVID-19 lockdowns eased in 2022 revived questions about sustainable tourism.  Can cities handle the current “massification” of tourism? And what’s left for residents after the tourist swarms leave garbage bins overflowing with single-use plastic bottles and unaffordable housing in their wake?
The sheer quantity of visitors to the Louvre in Paris to see da Vinci’s Mona Lisa exemplifies this trend.  I’ve been to the Louvre several times, but I have never gotten close enough to the Mona Lisa to view it clearly because of the hordes of selfie-taking tourists who barely visit the rest of the museum, leaving it, thankfully, almost crowd-free – even when there is a line out the museum door to get in.  (Seriously, people.  The Mona Lisa will underwhelm after you’ve already seen it in 10,000 commercials.)  This cannot be the future.
But even if you are sensitive to the problem of unsustainable travel, that doesn’t make it easy for you to turn around and find sustainable travel options.  Squishy adjectives abound – green, eco, natural, sustainable, responsible, slow – but precise definitions lag.  What do these terms actually mean? At the same time, “greenwashing” – the practice of deliberately presenting a product or service as more environmentally friendly than it actually is – continues apace, helpfully led in Europe by the financial industry.  (Maybe they feel more social pressure to play “green” than Wall Street?) And if you want to tighten the reigns a little and give your money only to sustainability certified producers and sellers, the number of potential processes that can be certified, and the number of certifying entities, truly beggars belief.  The Ecolabel Index alone counts 465 of them.
What’s a reasonably conscientious traveler to do?
To answer this question, I thought it might be interesting to compare what Portugal, and its nearest neighbor, Spain, are doing on the sustainable tourism front. The European Union (EU) has taken seriously the United Nations (UN) 17 Sustainable Development Goals – often referred to in Europe as 17 SDG – which ultimately will require more sustainable tourism.  As such, there are various EU policies and programs in place to help EU countries build their travel sectors in ways that are not environmentally destructive and help local residents flourish socio-economically.  They’ve also designed tools to help consumers select products and services that will aid countries in achieving their sustainability goals.  This is great for hapless Americans like me sifting through the eco weeds of the internet.
In this post, I’ll start with a brief overview of what Portugal and Spain are doing to promote sustainable tourism – and how well they’re doing it.  Then, I’ll talk a bit about what people typically mean when they use sustainable travel and tourism jargon, including some terms of art you should look out for in Iberia.  Finally, I’ll wrap up with some suggestions for how travelers here can find the right sustainable travel option for them.
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Sustainability Policy in Portugal and Spain: Is It Working?

As a former political scientist, and as an American watching US political dysfunction from abroad, I continue to be amazed at what the EU and individual member states accomplish when it comes to environmental and social responsibility.  Even if imperfect – everybody loves to hate the EU – something is better than nothing.
The framework for understanding what’s happening in Portuguese and Spanish sustainability policy derives from the UN and the EU.  In 2015, the UN adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the 17 SDGs mentioned above, that wrap areas such as clean water, clean energy, sustainable cities, and climate action into the UN’s broader poverty-reduction program.  While none of the SDGs calls for “sustainable tourism” per se, several of them deal with components of the travel industry implicated in sustainable tourism, such as responsible consumption, ocean and marine resources, and economic growth.  In 2020, the EU approved the European Green Deal, a set of initiatives to make the EU climate neutral by 2050, and the European Green Deal and the 17 SDGs were eventually integrated into the EU’s overall governing strategy.
Although some organizations have criticized the European Green Deal for not being ambitious enough, the deal did result in the creation of the Just Transition Mechanism, which will have allocated an estimated 55 billion euros in grants and loans over the 2021-2027 time frame to help EU member nations reach climate neutrality targets.  This includes grants to specific territories hard hit by transitioning away from oil refineries and coal-fired power plants, as was the case in particular regions of Portugal and Spain.  Part of that funding will be directed towards sustainable tourism projects as well.
Today, both Portugal and Spain also have their own sustainable tourism strategies at the national level.  However, this begs the question: do all these programs and policies eventually trickle down to the individual in any noticeable way?  And where do Portugal and Spain rank in terms of achieving their sustainability goals?
Let’s tackle these questions by taking a look at two different metrics to evaluate how well each country is doing on environmental quality generally, and sustainable tourism specifically.
The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) at Yale University’s Center for Environmental Law & Policy tracks 40 separate indicators ranging from biodiversity and marine health in protected areas to greenhouse emissions and clean drinking water.  In the 2022 scoring of 180 countries, the top three ranked are Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Finland.  Spain comes in at a respectable 27th place, with Portugal a distant 48th place, though closey trailing the 43rd-ranked laggard, the United States. (USA!  USA!)  Whereas Spain’s climate policy, according to the index, improved by 10.7 points over the prior ten-year period, Portugal’s worsened by 10.9 points.  Although Spain’s GDP is about five times as large as Portugal’s, which might suggest it has more economic muscle to power through tougher climate action, the GDP per capita is similar in both countries.  This means that Portugal could be doing a lot better on environmental quality, at least according to Yale.  The jury’s still out on how European Green Deal funding might affect these numbers, but hopefully it will help push Portugal in the right direction.
Perhaps in an attempt to make up for its weak environmental performance, Portugal comes out ahead of Spain in sustainable travel.  The Euromonitor International’s 2023 Sustainable Travel Index ranks 99 countries according to the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of their tourism sectors.  Sweden, Finland, and Austria round out the top three positions, while Portugal takes 16th place, having moved up one notch from the prior year, but Spain does not even make the top 20. Tourism accounts for a larger percentage of GDP in Spain than in Portugal – 12.4% vs 8.1%, respectively, though this is the OECD number from the golden year of 2019 before the pandemic tanked everything –– so unsustainable tourism could potentially be a much larger problem for Spain.  Of course, it matters that the sector develops sustainably for both countries, and neither can rest on its laurels.  The most visited country in the world is France – gotta get in line to squint at the ‘ole Mona Lisa! – and France clocks in at a healthy 11th place on the Sustainable Travel Index, while tourism accounted for only 7.5% of France’s GDP. 

Getting Clear on the Concept: What Is Sustainable Tourism in Portugal and Spain?

And what is ecotourism? And what is green tourism? And what is slow tourism? And what is…
You get the picture.  There is *a lot* of vocabulary floating around the sustainability space right now, and unfortunately there are no global standards that companies working in sustainable tourism must abide by.    
The UN’s World Travel Organization defines sustainable tourism as “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.” However, this broad definition allows the tourism industry to potentially claim that almost anything is “sustainable” versus some unstainable point of comparison.  (“Check it out: we have a recycling bin!”) Yet the practice of greenwashing can be disastrous if a company promotes questionably sustainable tourism in an environmentally fragile area.  Furthermore, greenwashing erodes consumer confidence that companies are actually doing their part.
Perhaps one of the most important distinctions globally lies between the more general category of sustainable tourism, and the more specific sub-category of ecotourism. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”  The difference here is that ecotourism is typically understood to take place in or near natural parks, reserves, and other protected areas instead of, say, a sustainably managed hotel in a busy city center.  (You can find out which type of lodging is more up your ally in my post Your Portuguese Hotel Style.) The Mohonk Agreement first aimed to formalize this difference back in 2000, and that industry consensus serves of the basis for most voluntary certification programs today.   
Because ecotourism is not strictly regulated by the Portuguese or Spanish governments, nor the EU, voluntary certification remains the primary way to ensure that a hotel’s claims of being an “eco resort” or an “eco hotel” are verifiable.  As EU member countries, hotels and other businesses in Portugal and Spain can elect to become certified with the EU’s own Ecolabel, and there are other third-party certifying organizations as well (more on this below). The EU also certifies products as organic – you can read more about this in my post about organic and natural wine in Portugal – and eco-friendly hotels tend to offer a lot of these.   Unfortunately, you will often find the words eco, natural, and sustainable used as indiscriminately in Iberia as you will anywhere else, so caveat emptor.
A relatively new area to pay attention to in Portugal and Spain, and arguably one of the most enjoyable ways to experience something akin to ecotourism, is so-called rural tourism (turismo rural in Portuguese; turismo rural or agroturismo in Spanish).  Faced with population and economic decline in rural areas due to internal immigration, particularly young people looking for work in cities, the problem of o esvaziamento do interior (emptying of the interior) and la España vaciada (emptied Spain) has pushed the Portuguese and Spanish governments towards developing rural tourism.  As a response to the tourism massification, as well as a more sustainable way to travel, spending time in rural areas, small towns, farms, and boutique vineyards allows tourists to be close to nature and reduce the environmental impact of their travel. It can also be more relaxing and allow you to engage with the local community, just as “slow tourism” or “nature tourism” encourage.

Finding the Right Sustainable Travel Option For You

As a traveler, I have often found it difficult to find sustainable travel options.  Sometimes you have a dig a little, but I think the extra work pays off not only environmentally but in the experience you are likely to have, especially if you end up staying somewhere off the beaten track.  Here are a few things in my internet search rotation you might find useful:
  • EU Ecolabel: As mentioned above, the EU has gotten into environmental certification via their Ecolabel for accommodations in Europe.  You can search by country and type of lodging, although Portugal and Spain don’t hold very many Ecolabel certifications for hotels as of yet.
  • Biosphere Certified: Created by the Responsible Tourism Institute, and incorporating the United Nations 17 SDGs I discussed at the beginning, you can also search for hotels and other types of companies that are Biosphere Certified at their website.  There are currently 592 certified companies in Portugal and 1,876 in Spain.  Considering that Spain is about five times the size as Portugal and with an economy five times as large, Portugal is doing pretty well in this regard.
  • Eco Hotels: The aggregator Eco Hotels allows you to search accommodations by location, and you can view all the third-party certifications the hotel holds.  They do not do their own certifying.  Be sure to select “Certified” in the search result filters.
Sites like Booking.com, commonly used throughout Europe, allow you to search by whether the accommodations are Level, 1, 2, or 3+ according to their Travel Sustainable category.  However, the designation comes from hotels self-certifying that they follow various sustainability practices.  TripAdvisor Green Leaders is also based on self-certification, though TripAdvisor assigns the ranking.  I tend to look at these last, though that doesn’t mean they aren’t helpful references.

So, Should You Sustainably Visit Portugal or Spain?

Portugal, obvs.
The World Travel Awards gave Portuguese tourism organizations a passel of awards in 2023, including the World’s Responsible Tourism Award to Dark Sky Alqueva, where you can do some truly incredible stargazing, and the World’s Leading Conservation Company to Parques de Sintra, which manages the Parque e Palácio Nacional da Pena outside Lisbon, among other national monuments. Portugal overall was awarded Europe’s Leading Destination in 2023.
Meanwhile, in 2023 Spain won…World’s Leading Business Hotel?
But honestly, you can’t go wrong anywhere on the Iberian Peninsula.  ¡Olé!
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