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Page last updated at 11:23 GMT, Thursday, 15 May 2008 12:23 UK

Benidorm - the new face of eco-tourism

Benidorm, Spain... does it qualify as an eco destination?

Home to high-rise hotels and bus-loads of tourists, Benidorm is not an obvious destination among tourists looking for an eco holiday. But maybe it should be, says Tom Heap, presenter of Radio 4's Costing the Earth.

Of all the choices you'll make this year, where to go on holiday may well be the one with the biggest environmental consequences. Maybe you fancy trekking with the Kalahari bushmen and living on grubs; a quick lounge on the hot sand; or a long lunch in Dubrovnik.

To reach a decision you'll weigh up the usual things - cost, excitement, relaxation and available time. But increasingly people are beginning to add environmental impact into the mix.

The travel industry has, of course, spotted this and green claims abound. But holidaymakers may be surprised to find out that frequently it's not the painted lady of eco-tourism, but the modest, unpretentious beach break, that should win the plaudits.

Tom Heap presents A Clean Break, part of Radio 4's series Costing the Earth, at 2100 BST on Thursday, 15 May
Or listen to it later on BBC's iPlayer

Sadly, I couldn't afford to sample some of the latest "eco-tourism" offers to Rwanda, Saudi Arabia or Algeria in practice. A more sustainable solution was to seek the view of John Swarbrook, head of Sheffield Hallam University's Centre for International Tourism Research.

"I think it's absolutely disastrous news for people interested in the environment," says Mr Swarbrook, who likes to refer to the movement as "ego tourism".

"What it does is it takes people to places where they really shouldn't go. It's given the idea that so called sustainable tourism can only ever be practised by a tiny minority of people who can afford to or wish to go to places like that."

"Eco" destinations such as Antarctica make no sense, he says.

"Why? There's no reason to go. It would be better if you didn't go. We know from around the world where tourism takes off today small time, by tomorrow it's going to be big time."

Bucket and spade destinations such as Benidorm tend not to excite the independent, environmentally-conscious traveller. Yet on a trip to the Mediterranean resort, self-confessed eco-geek Gemma Roberts noted they have much to commend them.

Pump-operated taps

At one hotel, all the room lights automatically switch off on leaving. Street lighting is low energy and many of the taps are foot pump-operated to save water.

Benidorm beach in 1963... before package or eco holidays
Much of the food is locally sourced; the beach immaculately clean and visitors can walk, rather than drive, everywhere. But perhaps most importantly, the sheer volume of tourists has an environmental upside. Stacking thousands of guests in such a small area limits the size of place they're impacting.

"I was expecting to arrive in a very developed, built-up area that would be doing absolutely nothing towards looking after the natural environment," says Ms Roberts.

"I've been really pleasantly surprised by lots of small things that are going on within the resort itself."

The proximity of facilities is impressive, she says.

"I really love the fact that everything is within walking distance. There are lots of lights on the promenade and they're all low energy, there are recycling bins everywhere. All the hotels have energy-saving devices.

"There's lots of local produce available. Even in a high density resort like Benidorm there are opportunities to become as sustainable as possible; to make sure the impact is kept to a minimum."

Goldilocks approach

But there's no denying the environmental damage caused by actually getting there - the aeroplane trip.

The whole experience is about bloating the guest with far too much and what we're trying to do is reverse that
Eco hotel manager, Emma Stratton
One economy trip from Birmingham to Benidorm leaves 464kg of CO2 in its wake, according to calculations by the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management. Yet, if two people shared a car from Birmingham to Cornwall, each passenger would be responsible for just 84kg of CO2.

So the journey to Cornwall itself has one fifth of the global warming potential - making it, on one level at least, a greener choice. A next obvious step for visitors would be one of the growing number of "eco hotels".

Emma Stratton, who manages the Bedruthan Steps hotel at Mawgan Porth near Newquay, warns potential guests not to arrive expecting to be pampered. She is trying to change the philosophy of hotels - to break the link between enjoyment and consumption.

She believes instant luxury is just a sugar rush and true holiday pleasure is to be found in what you DO.

"The whole experience is about bloating the guest with far too much and what we're trying to do is reverse that and say actually you might be happier if you have less," explains Ms Stratton.

Machu Pichu
Machu Picchu - should it be accessible only by lottery?
"We want to go as far as we can to be eco friendly and sustainable and still have guests. But we've still got to make sure our guests have a fabulous time otherwise they'll make sure their neighbours will come to us."

But the nearby presence of Newquay airport is a niggling reminder that if tourism is about anything, it's about transportů and the tourist business really wants more of it.

Wouldn't the greenest holiday of all be to stay put, at home?

Leo Hickman, the Guardian's green guru, has just written a book, the Last Call, questioning if our love of travel can be sustained.

Predicting that surging oil prices might put paid to budget flights anyway, he advocates a "Goldilocks approach" to tourism: a three-year cycle of - flight one year, Europe overland the next, and holidaying in Britain the next.

But he also has a more radical idea to address our seemingly insatiable thirst to witness first-hand the charms of places like Venice or the Taj Mahal - a global lottery for entry tickets.

"There's lots of places where we know they're already struggling to sustain the number of visitors each year: Venice, Macchu Picchu, the Great Barrier Reef. You can charge an entry fee but there's a fairness argument there," says Hickman.

"Does it mean that tourism becomes an elitist activity? Or do we enter into this concept of lottery based tourism? It instils a new mentality where you feel like you're having a privileged moment to be able to go. It brings us back to an approach to tourism that kind of guest mentality that I would love to see a return to."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Bravo for saying that Benidorm is a good spot for eco-tourists. Going to out of the way destinations is always ego tourism whatever the excuse. Is a pilgrimage on foot a good eco way to take a break? It helps the esprit de corps anyway .
Joanna, Castelnau d'Auzan, France

Not only should access be only by lottery, but it should cost money to enter the lottery, e.g. $100 US for each entry (or pair of entries), from which funds the winners would be partially subsidized, perhaps on a graduated scale based on income and net worth. This would allow people of more modest means to be able to experience and benefit from such places, e.g. teachers, nurses, firemen, policemen, Wal Mart employees and others who make something less than a CEO's salary.
Lloyd Davidson, Evanston, IL US

Would a lottery stop tourism being elitist? I don't think so. I can foresee tickets going on eBay and reaching premium price. If tourism is about getting away, travelling, then it's how we travel and its impact/cost rather than whether we travel. I also think that some governments want the quick economic fix that tourism can bring and so encourage tourism without considering the impacts
John Tabor, Wantage UK

At a capacity of 120 passengers (around that of a Boeing 737) each passenger will be responsible for 3.9kg of CO2. That is somewhat better than the 84kg in a car. So if everyone stopped flying to Benidorm and drove to Cornwall instead, even if every car was full, there would be significantly more CO2 released.
Rob Watkins, Brighton, UK

You fail to mention that Spain is already overtapping its aquifers and losing wild species such as the Iberian lynx due to insufficient water supplies, not to mention Barcelona shipping in water. Maybe one of your reporters should do a 15 minute research on WWOOF and other permaculture inspired holidays.
Bruce Weiskotten, Shell'm, WA, US

Went to Norfolk from Germany last year using the camper van. Altogether 1500km of driving a family of four. No buildings needed apart from the occasional chip shop and toilets. Were we eco-tourists? I do not know, but we do something similar every year. I would love to go on safari with the kids but it all just seems so false these days.
Ken Wright, Bueckeburg, Germany

"One economy trip from Birmingham to Benidorm leaves 464kg of CO2 in its wake... Yet, if two people shared a car from Birmingham to Cornwall, each passenger would be responsible for just 84kg of CO2." This is just not a reasoned argument, whenever people compare planes to other types of transport why is the volume of people they carry not considered? Planes never only carry two people at a time. So based on the figured in this article If all 200 people from that plane drove down to Cornwall with two in a car it would throw out 16, 800kg of CO2, so how is that more eco friendly?
Jon, Worcs

It seems like a person on holiday would consume just about the same amount of power, food etc, so its mostly the CO2 generated from travel that is the biggest impact. It seems like more efficient travel options would offer the biggest improvement in green holidays. Rail instead of fly, bus instead of car. biking, rafting, or sailing holidays. Are there any cruise liners that use wind power like some of the larger tankers do ?
Jon, LA, US

Airships, sailing ships, electric cars and bicycles. No problem. Being the occasional nomad is not the real problem in fact it is very human. Turbo capitalism is the big problem.
Toners Bruxtin, Great England

I do agree with the ego tourism notion. Been a hotelier for more that 30 years, I have travelled a lot, and I feel it is terribly wrong to interfere with nature as it is done nowadays. Unesco has a program for sacred places around the globe and many other places should be considered and visited as such, with reverence, but better so, left alone.
Beatriz Beltran, Colima, Mexico

If you ever been to Spain, you will see that the coastline has been ruined forever. Are you telling me that we should all go to such a rubbish place and save the world? No thanks.
Benito Di Terlizzi, Vancouver, Canada

Benidorm is fab, I go every year. It's close by, no too far for the old carbon footprint, we all have a fab time, good old fashioned fun at the seaside. So much better than going to the Maldives.
David Glossop, Sheffield

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