Holidays that threaten the world's water

As Benidorm expands to leave surrounding areas high and dry, the planet reels from the blight of tourism
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It's a strange growth, is Benidorm - a concrete forest rising abruptly from a flat, dusty coastal plain. Squeezed between rocky, arid mountains and a deep-blue sea, 132 hotels jostle each other for their own small places in the sun.

It's a strange growth, is Benidorm - a concrete forest rising abruptly from a flat, dusty coastal plain. Squeezed between rocky, arid mountains and a deep-blue sea, 132 hotels jostle each other for their own small places in the sun.

Every day wakes to the raucous sounds of construction, for this forest is still growing. Four new hotels are now straining upwards towards the cloudless sky: one of them, incongruously named the Bali, will be the tallest in Europe when it is completed next year.

Twelve new hotels are planned for a town which already has a summer population of 300,000. Benidorm's tourist industry alone accounts for around 1 per cent of Spain's gross national product, giving it enormous political clout.

And it is growing sideways as well as up. This week will witness the opening of a new theme park to rival EuroDisney; a massive complex of 100 buildings, where three million visitors are expected each year.

All this is fuelled by water - but not the stuff in the Mediterranean that laps against its concrete roots. Like a real forest, it needs fresh water, lots and lots of it, if it is to grow and survive - water for the showers and baths in all those hotel rooms, water for the 30,000 swimming pools sprinkled across the resort, water for the lush green golf courses that surround it.

But it is scarce, and getting scarcer. Despite Henry Higgins, the rain in Spain does not stay mainly in the plain, or at least not on this one. Dry almost all the year round, Benidorm largely depends on mining water stored underground. And as its level drops, seawater seeps in, contaminating wells with salt and poisoning surrounding farmland.

Experts describe the growing crisis as a "time-bomb". But Benidorm is far from unique. It is certainly no worse off, and may be better placed, than many other resorts in Spain, and across the world.

In Calpe and Denia, just up the Costa Blanca, fresh water is so scarce that there are stringent restrictions on its use; residents must buy bottled water to drink. The mayor of Capri, 800 miles across the Mediterranean, has just warned that the island will run out of water this weekend, blaming "low-budget tourists".

In Goa, women have to walk further and further to fetch water, as the booming tourism industry soaks it up for hotels. In Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater, safari lodges take water from the Maasai and their cattle. Barbados's huge aquifers of pure water are under strain.

The problems can only get worse and more widespread. The irresistible force of fast-increasing tourism is crashing into the immovable object of the world's finite water supplies.

Tourism is the biggest industry the planet has seen, and the fastest growing. Since 1960 the number of international tourists has risen nearly 10-fold, from 69 million a year to 657 million, while the amount they spend has risen more than 13 times over, to £300bn annually.

And the growth is accelerating. Within 20 years, the UN"s World Tourism Organisation estimates, 1.5 billion international tourists will spend £1.3 trillion a year.

The earth's use of fresh water has soared six-fold over the past century alone, as population and living standards have grown. Already one-third of the world's people live in countries where water is in short supply. Within a quarter of a century, two-thirds of an increased population will do so.

Tourists use huge amounts of water. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation calculates that 100 tourists consume in 55 days the same amount of water as would produce rice to feed 100 Third World villagers for 15 years.

A single luxury hotel in a Third World country can get through 66,000 gallons of water a day in its kitchens, bathrooms and swimming pools and on its lush lawns. An 18-hole golf course in an arid country can use 500,000 gallons a day.

And the arrival of tourism greatly increases local demand for fresh fruit and vegetables, causing large amounts of water to be used to grow them.

"The water crisis has risen to the top of the tourism agenda," says Geoffrey Lippman, chairman of Green Globe, a body that specialises in tourism and the environment. "The industry is beginning to realise how much water it uses, and that it is competing for a scarce resource with people who need it to live."

Spain, which is both the world's second most popular tourist destination (after France), and the driest country in Europe, is at the forefront of the crisis.

Xavier Font, a Spaniard who is a senior lecturer in tourism management at Leeds Metropolitan University, says that the area around Benidorm "is dry and getting drier by the year, but the tourist board will not do anything about it. And you would get shot if you told a private company that it could not develop tourism because of a shortage of water."

He points out, for example, that a single golf course in the area consumes as much water as an entire town of 10,000 people, but says the industry is committed to building more and more of them as "one of the ways of keeping its business alive".

Certainly the authorities deny there is a problem. The mayor of Benidorm, Vicente Pérez Devesa, says that his resort has "water, wealth and entertainment; it is the best model of tourism in Europe". Pedro Pastor Rosello, a water councillor for Denia, says: "The negative effect of coastal tourism is virtually nil."

Environmentalists disagree. Dr Jose Luis Rubio, head of the European Society for Soil and Water Conservation, which is linked to Valencia University, says that partly because of tourism, water tables are dropping rapidly along nearly 150 miles of the Mediterranean coast around Benidorm, from Alicante to Castellon.

Water, he says, is removed from aquifers two or three times faster than it can be replenished. Wells that once were 60 feet deep now have to be drilled down 300 feet. "Tourism infrastructure is demanding more water than we have," he says. "This is an unsustainable use of resources."

Most of the wells along the Alicante coast are now so low that they are drawing in water from the sea, making them permanently useless for drinking water. And Dr Rubio points out that agriculture also suffers, as the soil becomes too saline for orchards and citrus fruit to flourish.

Carlos Masanet, of the environmental group Colla Ecologista La Carrasca, says that the villages around the tourist resorts are also affected. "They are having to pump deeper for water for their daily living requirements and for farming."

And one local villager, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, adds: "People in charge of the enormous developments along the coastline refuse to take into account the fact that we have very limited water resources in our areas."

Meanwhile attempts to import water are being resisted. Callosa d'en Sarria, a municipality less than 10 miles from Benidorm, has strenuously defended its water supply and demanded that no new tourist hotels be built along the coast until it is guaranteed. Farmers in nearby Valencia are protesting against plans for a pipeline to take water from the river Jucar to Alicante.

Benidorm gets much of its water along a 300-mile pipeline from Tajo River, near Madrid. The new theme park will fill its lakes and waterways with sea water, and used recycled water on its gardens. Paul Jeffrey, senior research fellow in the School of Water Sciences at Cranfield University, says that Benidorm has done more than many areas in the world to try to manage its water use.

But, he adds, the sheer increase in the numbers of visitors threatens to overwhelm even the best endeavours.