Making better decisions for sustainable tourism water management

This article is based on research by Mar Vila, Núria AgellGerard Costa

Tourism is adapting to a new kind of growth. Many destinations are prioritising sustainable growth, rather than just economic growth. Managing water usage to mitigate the environmental impact of visitors is a major factor in this new scenario.

Global water use has tripled over the last 50 years. However, tourism is only relevant as a significant factor in a few countries because agriculture and industry generally use much more water than visitors.

The situation, however, changes when trends are considered and water demand is concentrated in time and space. Seasonal tourist concentrations usually peak when water is scarce, and tourist spatial concentrations usually occur on the coast.

Global water use has tripled over the last 50 years

Tourism may contribute to improvements in water quality, such as when sewage treatment systems are built that also process local wastewater, or when treatment systems are installed to improve local water quality to meet tourist expectations. However, tourism can also worsen water quality.

The use of water by tourism activities is likely to rise due to increased tourist numbers, higher hotel standards, and the growth of water-intensive activities. Climate change may also have consequences for water availability.

Given these trends, the efficient management of water is crucial for ensuring sustainable tourism destinations.

Esade Professors Mar Vila, Núria Agell, and Gerard Costa, together with postdoctoral researcher Arayeh Afsordegan, and Mónica Sánchez from UPC-Barcelona Tech, investigated the subject.

"Our goal was to present a new methodology that guides decision-making for water managers," state the authors. "To develop this method, we ran a structured selection of factors that affect these decisions, and considered stakeholder preferences for technical, economic, social, political and environmental aspects."

The methodology guides decision-making for water managers

In their paper, Influential factors in water planning for sustainable tourism, published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, the authors present a new qualitative technique for making decisions about water use.

Water pressures

The researchers focus on the Costa Brava, in the Spanish region of Catalonia on the Mediterranean coast. As one of Spain’s major summer tourist destinations, the Costa Brava sees its population rise from around 250,000 to over one million in July and August.

Tourism is the region’s main socioeconomic activity, but the Costa Brava suffers from limited water resources, and its geography creates complex water-management challenges during the hot and dry summer months.

Costa Brava
The Costa Brava suffers from limited water resources (Photo: Jorge Fontestad/iStock)

The public water utility, the Costa Brava Consortium (CCB), must decide which measures to take after considering energy and investment costs, as well as social and environmental factors. There are multiple stakeholders, often with complex, non-obvious and competing priorities.

This means that when making a decision-making analysis, the CCB must consider multiple criteria before selecting the relevant factors and assessing possible solutions or scenarios.

Qualitative Delphi method and decision making

The work presented by the research team at Esade forms part of a longer ongoing project on sustainable water management, but an important methodological solution is delivered at this stage. At its core is the Delphi technique, which the researchers describe as "a well-known group decision-making method for reaching consensus among a panel of experts or stakeholders on the significant features of a certain topic."

For sustainable water management, decision-makers must consider the various technical, economic, social, political and environmental factors that matter to stakeholders and select a list of influential factors.

The Delphi technique uses questionnaires to extract information – but this has limitations. Experts may find it difficult to give opinions in uncertain situations, or with imperfect knowledge.

The Delphi technique uses computational linguistics to summarise the opinion of many stakeholders and find potential solutions for responsible water management

Other technical problems can arise due to imprecision when labelling linguistic terms. To overcome these drawbacks, the team created a new integrated Q-Delphi (Qualitative Delphi) method based on computational linguistics for water use planning.

"The methodology makes it possible for tourist destinations to better capture opinions on multi-dimensional concepts without losing or misrepresenting information," explain the authors.

The method considers the intensity of preferences and, crucially, it allows experts to respond with uncertainty.

The Q-Delphi technique enables the CCB to select and rank indicators, weighing the relevance and importance of factors such as energy consumption, job creation, land use, tourist satisfaction and political acceptance, for experts in tourism, water management, hotel management and others.

The complexity given by the existence of multiple stakeholders with diverse – and sometimes competing perspectives – justifies the need and hence the contribution of this method.

The main benefit is that it provides a ranked list of factors, which can be qualitative and quantitative, that summarises the opinion of many stakeholders.

"By having various values for each indicator in each solution, a global result can be obtained that summarises all the relevant factors – and so it is easy to compare scenarios," write the researchers.

For the CCB and other water-management decision-makers, implementing solutions chosen in this way means more sustainable and responsible water management.

The results obtained in the Costa Brava case show that the final selection of indicators is a combination of quantitative factors (energy consumption, investment, operational costs, and water losses) and qualitative factors (water quality, public health, tourist satisfaction, and public acceptance).

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.