Spain’s ecotourism focus protects its land, its wildlife and its future. Most people associate Spain with tourism, sunny beaches, and world-class food and wine. But the country has been implementing many sustainable measures to combat climate change — which will appeal to today’s eco-minded traveler.
“Spain has a high level of awareness and a proactive attitude towards environmental protection,” says José Manuel de Juan, Spain’s consul for tourism affairs.
For example, Spain is the first country in the European Union to adapt national plans to bring an end to climate change, according to a recent report by the European Climate Foundation. And in 2021, Spain adopted its first Climate Change and Energy Transition Law, which aims to cut emissions by 23% by 2030.
The country is also a leader in renewable energy initiatives, ranking first in the corporate Power Purchase Agreement Index and eighth worldwide in 2022’s Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index. Spain ranks second in the EU for electricity generated from solar and wind sources. Nearly 47% of all energy produced comes from renewable sources, says de Juan.
“Spain is committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development approved by the UN in 2015, which incorporates aspects directly related to the conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity, reducing pollution, defending the environment and the fight against climate change,” he adds.
Leveraging tourism for sustainable development
Spain’s ecotourism focus has topped their national plans for many years, and the country has been at the forefront of implementing sustainable measures and initiatives to combat climate change, says Marcos Roel, CEO of Petrabax in Long Island City, NY.
In addition to the larger initiatives by the central government — including investment in sustainable transportation like highspeed rail connecting all major cities — there are other programs in smaller towns and cities, he notes.
“For example, Pontevedra in Galicia went ‘car-free’ 20 years ago and has won major international awards for the pedestrianization of the city and its positive effects,” explains Roel.
Seville recently joined the Global Sustainable Tourism Council to ensure its natural and cultural resources are protected and hosted the organization’s 2022 Conference. Once famous for its traffic jams, Madrid adapted a zero-emission vehicles policy in 2019 to help reduce pollution.
Spain boasts more than 70 million acres of protected land and has the highest number of UNESCO-designated learning places for sustainable development — including 53 Biosphere Reserves, 15 geoparks and four national parks.
“We have 30 natural spaces certified with the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism and several destinations included in the European Destinations of Excellence Network, which promotes sustainable tourism,” adds de Juan.
Home to the highest levels of biodiversity in Europe, Spain houses 65% of its birds and 30% of its fauna and flora species. In all, visitors can see 70,000 wildlife species throughout the country.
Selling memorable experiences
“For us, sustainability goes much further than a certificate or carbon offsetting,” says Beatriz Carolina Lopez Diaz, CEO and co-founder of Madrid-based Inspirience, which specializes in sustainable tourism. "It’s about introducing people to destinations in an authentic way to create an emotional approach. Then, they can appreciate the destination, take care of it like their own and become an ambassador for the experience.”
Collaborating with partners that promote respect for the environment, Diaz’s team helps visitors travel with commitment and conscience, without sacrificing comfort and safety. "We connect the traveler with the essence of Spain in an authentic, immersive way. Spain has many cultures and traditions and offers an enriching, diverse and highly entertaining travel experience,” she says.
Spain’s multifaceted offerings appeal to everyone, from couples and families to single travelers, notes Suzanne McGrory, Europe product manager at Audley Travel in Boston, Massachusetts. “Clients enjoy delicious food, world-class museums and a rich history that can be seen through the country’s architecture,” she explains. “From a responsible tourism point of view, Spain is easily connected by train so clients can leave a smaller carbon footprint using this network.”
There are plenty of sustainability initiatives within the portfolio of accommodations, adds McGrory. “For example, Hotel Viura in Rioja uses the hotel’s waste to create biomass that is then used as fuel, reducing the property’s use of fossil fuels,” she says. “Castillo del Buen Amor in Salamanca produces solar and geothermal energy onsite to power the hotel. The operators of the hotel have also reforested 250,000 native trees onto the property in the last five years.”
Most of the products Petrabax sells in Spain have sustainability elements such as walking or biking tours, and itineraries featuring highspeed rail transportation. “Our newer packages include rural and off-the-beaten path destinations where we rely on family-run businesses and hotels, and chains with strong sustainability,” he says.
Both Diaz and Roel recommend the Camino de Santiago, a self-guided travel experience and pilgrimage in northwestern Spain leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
“It’s existed for more than 1,000 years, and thousands of travelers reach Santiago on foot, on bike or on horseback every year. Most view the experience as a spiritual adventure or retreat from modern life,” explains Roel.
“The Camino passes through small towns and hamlets whose lodging establishments, cafés, restaurants and shops are owned and operated by local families and locals. Various groups and individuals committed to the environment have joined the Camino Clean action, driven to keep it as the perfect example of sustainable tourism.”
Plenty of options for nature lovers
Boasting some of the greatest biodiversity in the world, Spain appeals to ecotourism-minded clients, says Diaz. She recommends planning client trips that include the Sierra, where nearly half of Spain’s flora and fauna is concentrated. It’s also a great spot for wildlife viewing and birdwatching.
“It’s a true paradise; one of the largest black vulture populations in Spain is concentrated here, and visitors will see ibex (wild goats) throughout Guadarrama National Park,” says Diaz, who also suggests adding Extremadura to the itinerary.
Hidden gems worth recommending
Spain’s multi-faceted appeal makes it an easy sell, says Diaz. From beaches with crystalline waters on tiny islands like Formentera to beachfront resorts in Benidorm, the Canary Islands or the Andalusian coast, there’s something for every traveler.
Clients can also enjoy the mountains and sea on the Cantabrian coast in northern Spain or visit the Picos de Europa or the Zumaia flysch – the small fishing village made famous by Game of Thrones – or visit wineries to sample local cider and txakoli, a dry sparkling white wine.
“While all of Andalusia is amazing, for me, Seville is the gem,” adds Roel. “Its people, its energy, its monuments, its history, its food and its music touches everyone who visits. Every time I visit, friends show me something new that makes me fall in love with the city all over again, whether it’s a small flamenco spot that only locals know about or the little restaurant that serves the best snails you’ve ever had.”
Roel also recommends the vibrant city of Santiago de Compostela, home to what many consider to be the oldest continuously operating hotel in the world, Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos.
“Its main square Praza do Obradoiro, with its breathtaking cathedral, is stunningly beautiful. The city feels young because of its energy yet is the quintessentially perfectly preserved medieval town,” he adds.
McGrory likes sending clients to Cadiz. Founded in the 11th century and has a strong sea-going history, it’s also famous for seafood-based tapas. She says art lovers will enjoy the small towns of Pals and Figures to see examples of Dali’s work, and the city of Segovia — located about an hour outside of Madrid.
“It’s incredibly picturesque, with a well-maintained Roman aqueduct running through the center of town,” she says.
“Girona is a well-preserved medieval town about an hour from Barcelona. Visitors see small cobblestone streets and alleys and beautiful river views, as well as having the chance to visit filming locations for quite a few famous scenes in Game of Thrones.”
Each of Spain’s cities and towns has something special to offer, she adds. For example, Badajoz has the Moorish Castle and the Cathedral; Caceres is a jaw-dropping medieval town full of interesting museums and Merida has the famous Roman theatre and Museum dedicated to Roman art.
“Plasencia has its 16th-century aqueduct, and Trujillo is another gem of a medieval town with an amazingly gorgeous main square,” says McGrory. “And Zafra has its quaint medieval quarter with winding streets you can get lost in as you explore its history.”
Sample world-class food and wine
With more than 200 Michelin-starred restaurants — 13 of them with three stars — Spain has always been on the cutting edge of gastronomy, notes Roel, and there are many delicious under-the-radar spots that advisors can suggest to clients.
“If someone walks down the Calle del Laurel in Logroño at night, popping in and out of the many different pinchos bars, they would be hard-pressed to find an amazing dining experience like this in any major city,” he says. “One pincho bar’s entire menu was two items — tortilla and stuffed mushrooms — and the line was out the door. The diversity in Spain’s cuisine is perhaps the main attraction; their cuisine is the mirror image of their people.”
Even Spain’s restaurants are becoming green, notes de Juan. Since 2022, the Michelin Guide Spain and Portugal has incorporated the Green Star distinction to highlight pioneering establishments in sustainable gastronomy and a notable commitment to eco-responsibility.
“This year, inspectors have distinguished 14 new Michelin Green Stars, and 13 of them are in Spain,” says de Juan.
Diaz says clients can enjoy excellent wine from unexpected places, such as in the Sierra Norte de Madrid, and from internationally recognized wineries in La Rioja.
“Wherever you go, whatever your budget, most of the time you’ll have a quality experience,” says Diaz.
Diaz suggests booking wine tasting, horseback riding or hot-air ballooning in the northern regions of La Rioja and Rioja Alavesa or sampling pintxos – small snacks – in the Basque Country area of Donostia-San Sebastián.
Diaz says that in addition to Spain’s must-see highlights — Madrid’s Prado Museum and Royal Palace in Madrid, the city of Toledo, Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and Flamenco in Andalusia — consider selling interesting ways for your clients to experience the country.
“For example, in Toledo, eat in a small palace where the owner welcomes you, tells you stories about the place and prepares you a delicious meal in her own home? Or, after visiting the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, participate in a calçotada – traditional Catalan food in which you pick up the calçots from the garden and prepare them, and then eat all together,” suggests Diaz.
“And, after visiting Seville, we can immerse ourselves in the Sierra de Aracena and discover the cradle of the best ham in the world: Jabugo. Visitors can tour its meadows, understand the ecosystem that allows the quality of the ham to be so high, visit ham cellars, and participate in a ham-cutting workshop before eating under an oak tree surrounded by spectacular scenery.”
For centuries, Spain has drawn people from all over the world, and the country continues to improve and reinvent itself, says Roel.
“I believe it will continue to be an important destination for people to visit for centuries to come,” he says.
To learn more about Spain's attractions and sustainability initiatives, visit www.Spain.info/en