Over the last few decades, tourism has become increasingly important to society, with an inevitable impact on the most visited tourist regions. Initially, they saw improvements in working and social conditions, and now they benefit from increased mobility and accessibility. But can tourism be sustainable, or at least contribute to sustainability? João Fernandes, president of the Algarve Tourism Board (RTA), which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020, believes that sustainable tourism is possible and explains why. But do we still have time?
The rapid growth in tourism has outstripped the implementation of decarbonisation technologies. How do you view this issue?
On the one hand, tourism is successful and we want the industry to function well, but, on the other hand, if there’s one sector that acts like a sponge in relation to new technologies, then it’s tourism. In Lisbon, following instructions from the city council, tuk-tuks and GoCars were made electric, and scooters are now linked to tourism as a solution for the problems of mobility and leisure. Tourism can act as a catalyst for residents to adopt these measures.
Are we talking about mere window dressing in this case, or do we have to do more because it may already be too late? Imagine that, in 2030, tourists are no longer able to travel by plane due to higher fuel costs, carbon emissions, the increased price of flights or the imposition of carbon taxes. How will they visit the Algarve?
I think that the opposite is true. Globalisation, and improved access to holiday destinations, is an undeniable reality, even in parts of the world that have not had these opportunities before. Firstly, more people are able to go on holiday and travel abroad. Secondly, transport costs have been falling, not rising. You say that costs will rise exponentially because they depend upon limited resources, fossil fuels in particular… What we have been observing instead, in rail transport for example, is a move towards electric mobility, as well as the possibility of using hydrogen and various other technologies.
How about aeroplanes? According to ANA (Algarve Airports), in 2018, Faro International Airport handled around 8.7 million passengers.
Recently, the owner of Tesla gave an interview saying that they’re designing a car with a lifetime of one million kilometres or 20 years, due to be launched in 2030. I can’t say that this will all happen tomorrow, but the CEO of a large company is saying that, by 2030, or close to that date, the kind of road travel that we see today with electric cars will be widespread.
That’s marketing… By 2030, we have to lower our carbon footprint by at least 40%, and, by 2050, we need to live with zero emissions. How will people get to the Algarve, if not by train?
By electric means of transport, whether by train, road or plane. I’m talking about electricity, but these technologies may involve hydrogen or other, as yet unknown, designs given that the renewable energies sector is developing very quickly. On the other hand, we’ve invested heavily in promoting a more circular economy, working in conjunction with the Regional Administration of Agriculture. This economic model whereby we extract, produce, consume and then throw things away has to be reversed if we’re going to use the resources we have to generate further resources. What we’re doing, together with other sectors such as agriculture, is promoting the integration of local goods and services into the value chain of tourism, thereby reducing the carbon footprint of the goods and services available to our visitors.
Faced with the growth in tourism, how can we reduce the Algarve’s carbon footprint?
We have room to grow, because sustainability is not just about the environment – it has an impact on economics and society. For example, the Algarve has two versions of reality that are uncomfortable for those who live and work here. Tourism is the dominant sector in the region, and there are few others that can match it – although it can have the effect of elevating other industries, hence the circular economy. The seasonal nature of the tourist trade can lead to precarious or underpaid employment. We need to think about this from the point of view of sustainability, and we need to promote other kinds of services. According to the World Tourism Organisation, next year we will have about 26 million trips in Europe classified as ‘nature tourism’. We’re developing a response to this, and looking at what we can offer in order to generate a demand all year round that is not just focused on the coast. In this way, we will be able to grow sustainably, both in terms of our environmental impact and the wellbeing of those who live here.
How do you manage to combine the words tourism and nature? Does selling nature actually work?
Our satisfaction reaches beyond the contemplation of nature in itself. People have always travelled to see natural beauty, to appreciate the landscape or to enjoy pleasant places as locations for other activities. In the Algarve, although the coastline is the main attraction, we also have a national underwater ecological reserve along this 200km stretch.
And why not promote local agriculture instead of importing and transporting food for residents and tourists?
This is yet another opportunity to turn sustainability into competitiveness. When we travel, we want to see something different from what we have at home. We are interested in what is local and authentic, especially when it comes to food and gastronomy. Within a circular economy – focused on authenticity and tradition – we are able to provide valuable local goods and services to those who visit us. People who live here can find employment in producing things locally, or by using their knowledge of a particular craft, which may date back to the traditions of their ancestors. This can transform and improve the destination, making it more authentic and distinctive.
Tourism goes hand in hand with evolution, but also with pollution…
Together with the Regional Coordination and Development Commission (CCDR), the University of the Algarve (UALg) and Turismo de Portugal, we are creating a sustainable tourism observatory. We set up this observatory in order to understand the carbon footprint of the Algarve; we would like to have an accurate picture of the true impact of this economic activity, but we would also like to research the issues affecting the sector and create a basis for public policies for the region.
You have a degree in Environmental Engineering. Do you know anything about your own carbon footprint?
I don’t know my precise impact. I try to work on a slightly larger scale, considering the Algarve as a whole and developing initiatives that might have a wider impact.
What does this observatory consist of?
There are a number of factors that need to be measured, ranging from water consumption to employment, residual waste, renewable energy and other such areas. This observatory was not created from scratch. Various institutions contributed towards its formation. It is already preparing its application for the World Tourism Organisation, and it incorporates knowledge from the research centre that was already set up by the university.
At the moment, the institutions involved are UALg (as we need the input of peer-reviewed scientific research); CCDR (which coordinates regional development); RTA (which expressed this need for research from the outset), and Turismo de Portugal (since this body requires such research on a national scale, precisely because it wants tourism to be a pioneering sector from the point of view of sustainability). Obviously, we will have to have a broader group of partners, so the project isn’t closed to anyone.
How can we continue to pursue the aim of zero emissions?
This is a goal for every country and every sector. In terms of tourism, I don’t see it as a problem, but as an opportunity. We’re making a conscious effort to achieve this aim, so we’re setting up the sustainable tourism observatory to measure the impacts of the industry and to outline our commitments. The plan has already been submitted by the Association of Algarve Municipalities (AMAL).
We know that tourism accounts for about 8% of the world’s carbon footprint.
We have the ability, sensitivity and commitment to act positively in a number of areas. In October, we planted native trees across an area of 250 hectares, following a plan that was pre-established with GEOTA (Environmental and Land Use Planning Study Group), in association with Ryanair, our partner in this initiative. We’ve been trying to develop other initiatives, and have contributed to Zoomarine’s similar and very interesting ‘Green Mountain’ project.
You mention ‘other initiatives’. Can you be more specific?
We have to work on developing solutions, centred around water consumption, for example. As an environmental engineer, I worked at a water treatment plant that recycled water for the irrigation of golf courses. This was already taking place in the Algarve 25 years ago. Today, across the 40 existing courses, you’ll find that most of them have the capacity to use recycled water. We’ve also been working at the level of water consumption and efficiency. In August, we developed a campaign with Águas do Algarve, calling for rational water use: “consume water with a shred of awareness”.
In the autumn, if there was no more rain, the existing water reserves would only be enough to supply the region until the end of the year.
Water is a concern. One proposal is to construct a reservoir in the central Algarve region to increase storage capacity.
Is desalination an option?
There are other options that we need to work on that may be more promising – not excluding desalination, which from a financial point of view is rather challenging here in the Algarve. I think it’s more important for initiatives to apply the principles of a circular economy to water. Sometimes, we use our water supply in an unregulated way, and I’m not just referring to the amount of water we consume. We use good quality drinking water in a circuit that could be made self-sufficient and have various treatment levels, allowing for its reuse. In the case of washbasins, for example, we could have a circuit that would allow the wastewater to be used to flush the toilet, as in China. On the one hand, we could extend the use we make of water while, on the other hand, we could recycle it and use it for consumption, developing a system that upgrades it from a Wastewater Treatment Plant (ETAR) to a Water Treatment Plant (ETA).
Can you be more specific?
The sewage that’s currently treated in a Wastewater Treatment Plant could have an upgrade in its treatment, resulting in an injection into the water supply. Instead of getting water from a dam, if we first improve the treatment of wastewater then we are doing two things well: preventing that water from being sent back into the environment and allowing it to re-enter the consumption cycle. As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the most important reforms taking place at the level of water treatment and supply systems. One of AMAL’s climate change mitigation measures advocates this idea. We must remember that Portugal is one of only a handful of countries with a national plan to mitigate climate change. We may not be the best in some areas, but, in other areas, such as renewable energy, we’re doing well – although there’s still lots of room for improvement.
In terms of hotels and construction, let’s consider Praia da Rocha or Armação de Pera… Are there plans for more buildings or are there already enough?
The aim is always to replenish the existing building stock, both to improve the quality of the supply and to address issues relating to the impact of climate change. About three months ago, we signed a protocol with AMAL, who made a very interesting study on climate change mitigation measures, which focused on energy consumption in tourist accommodation. We must start by reducing consumption, considering the possibilities of microgeneration, producing power locally, installing low-energy light bulbs or photovoltaic/water heating panels with a view to creating self-contained systems.
Do entrepreneurs now look at environmental issues from a different perspective?Unfortunately, back in the 1980s, this issue was viewed differently. Today, hotels and restaurants look at their use of energy (and the price shown on their bills) and see it as an opportunity to reduce their overheads. This symbiosis has to be harnessed, so that they can adapt to Turismo de Portugal’s guidelines on improving our energy efficiency, our goods and our services.
There is a conflict between sustainability and competitiveness…
Nowadays, sustainability is a major part of competitiveness. Sustainability reduces costs in terms of water or electricity consumption and leads to greater efficiency in waste management. It is an add on from the point of view of competitiveness, because competitiveness seeks answers, new insights and demands.
What about fires and their frequency in the Algarve, as we’ve been left with burned areas for many years? How do we sell this kind of tourism?
We have several natural parks across the Algarve. I have always advocated in favour of sustainable development, and have discouraged conservationism without any real future perspective. These parks can be enjoyed responsibly, usually by those looking for nature tourism – there is a demand for this in the markets from Germany and the Netherlands. Here we have responsible tourists. When a protected area is enjoyed, it gives something back to the population. People understand the value of this space and become active participants in its defence. When the opposite occurs and we say that certain areas are untouchable, then these parks suffer death and decay. This is not to say that there aren’t some vulnerable areas that should be completely closed to the public, but the other spaces should be enjoyed responsibly in order to be sustainable in the long term.
The original question still hasn’t been answered. This happened recently in Monchique, and in Cachopo in 2012. For a few years, you couldn’t walk along the Via Algarviana.
Did this happen because of tourism? Maybe in places where there is tourism, there are people alert to those who start such fires, often with criminal intent.
In 2018, tourism in the Algarve generated revenue of around 16.6 billion euros and made a contribution of 8.2% to the national GDP. What did you think about the proposals for drilling for oil along the Algarve coast?
This was an interesting issue, because it was one of the few causes I have seen that could mobilise the entire region, from businessmen to the RTA, the university, CCDR, every municipality from the Algarve to southwest Alentejo, as well as everyone else who lives in the Algarve, foreigners and nationals alike. Tourism is like gold dust in this region, and it is heavily impacted by environmental changes such as those that might occur following oil extraction. As far as its ability to attract tourists is concerned, it’s important for the region to be seen as a sustainably-minded place. Anything that runs counter to this would be a mistake.
It’s almost the 50th anniversary of the Algarve Tourism Board. Does the solution for improving the industry depend on a technological evolution or revolution?
Technology could enable us to reduce the impact of tourism in terms of transport, mainly in matters relating to the region’s accessibility, but also in relation to the question of mobility. It can be a factor that mitigates the industry’s impact on the region. Furthermore, there are ideas that already exist today in the minds of decision-makers from different areas, shining a positive light on areas like the supply, treatment and consumption of water, energy, waste and the behaviour of residents and tourists.
Do you believe that there will be a paradigm shift in the near future?
I enrolled for my degree in environmental engineering 27 years ago, and finally I feel that I am beginning to see people taking this issue seriously for the first time in a long while, even amongst those you would least expect to do so – this includes both ordinary citizens and decision-makers. The thing is that we are moving slowly – in the area of packaging, for example. There is a lot of talk about plastics, and I see that the European Union has finally woken up and is showing concern. Packaging on products is often unnecessary. I remember that, a few years ago, Portugal’s way of recycling glass was much more effective because we had a returnable bottle system. There are measures that are perfectly within our reach. Like when it was decided that plastic bags had to be paid for. This had a highly positive impact because people realised they had a cost.
50 years of the Algarve Tourism Board – what will the next 50 years be like?
Tourism is the industry of peace, which thrives on the absence of conflict. The industry promotes diversity, encouraging someone living here to welcome someone foreign into their region. Finally, tourism is understood as an important driving force – not just for the economy, but for development, and not just as an end in itself, but as a contribution to the wellbeing of residents and visitors… those who are here today and those who will come to visit us tomorrow. Without any wild exaggerations or extremism, but with determination.
Just because there is no war, this does not necessarily mean that peace reigns. If the president of the Algarve Tourism Board (RTA), João Fernandes, refers to tourism as an industry for peace then we can’t help but remember other values, like the three figures below:
water consumption levels across the Algarve (in m3);
the amount of urban solid waste deposited in three landfills across the Algarve (in tons);
employment and unemployment levels in the region, with 90% of jobs dependent on tourism.
In 2018, Águas do Algarve S.A., owned by the 16 municipalities (45.56%) and by Águas de Portugal, SGPS, S.A. (54,44%), supplied 67,557,579 m3 of water to the local population, and around half of this was consumed during the three months of summer, the peak tourist season. Therefore, the so-called “industry for peace” robs water from the driest region of Portugal for the comfort of tourists in hotels and apartments, where each tourist uses an average of 220 litres of water per day (see chart).
Let’s take a look at the consequences of this consumption in greater detail. In the Algarve, an area which is almost entirely dependent on tourism (with 451,000 inhabitants and 5,000 km2), a lot of rubbish is produced. Figures supplied by ALGAR S.A., which is part of the Mota-Engil S.A. group, show that 346,100 tons of rubbish are deposited in landfills each year, and only 29,000 tons are recycled. This means that less then 8.5 percent of the local resources are reused. ECO123 wondered: during which part of the year is most of this waste produced? ALGAR responded by stating that, during the winter of 2018, 71,000 tons of waste were deposited in landfills; in spring, there were 86,400 tons deposited; in summer, 108,900 tons were deposited and, in autumn, 79,100 tons were deposited. ECO123 reviewed the amount of waste generated over the last five years and found that, instead of decreasing, the amount of waste generated each year has been increasing: in 2014, there were 297,000 tons of waste generated, in 2015, there were almost 300,000 tons generated; in 2016, 305,700 tons; and, in 2017, the amount of waste totalled 334,400 tons.
Now let’s look at statistics relating to unemployment in the Algarve. On average, in 2018, the unemployment rate was around 6.4 percent. But what does this actually mean? In February 2019, there were 19,014 people registered as unemployed at the job centre. In Albufeira alone, there were 3,300 people unemployed, in Portimão there were 3,541, and in Loulé 2,666. If we compare these figures to those from February 2018, we can see that at that time there were 19,852 people unemployed in the Algarve, and, in February 2017, there were 23,292. The unemployment rate has therefore been falling over the past three years. If we compare these figures to those during August over these years, we can see that, in August 2019, there were only 7,353 people registered as unemployed at the job centre. This is a seasonal difference of 11,661 — they are people who work in the tourist industry, primarily in hotels and restaurants, hired for three or six months before being dismissed once again as they are no longer needed.