Visitors at the Plaza del Obradoiro in Santiago on Monday.

by Oscar Corral

According to data provided by the Spanish National Institute of Statistics, tourism contributes 11.1% of GDP in Santiago de Compostela.Data on the distribution of visitors to Santiago de Compostela in 2018 shows that 41% of visitors are for leisure and holiday purposes and 40.8% are for pilgrimage purposes. And, visitor numbers are still growing at a rate of 10%, especially among young people and non-religious people, with pilgrims and tourists coming from a record 140 countries around the world.

HOWEVER, the title ‘World Heritage Site’ has brought to Santiago de Compostela not only growing tourist and tourism revenues, but also environmental pollution and the destruction of cultural monuments...
Environment and climate change

THE average temperature in Santiago has been rising for the past 60 years: in 2014, the city experienced 85 days at 25 degrees Celsius, compared to 10 days in 1954. These higher temperatures will have a range of devastating effects locally, and in 2017, the local newspaper EL PAÍS reported that “more wildfires are breaking out, damaging or destroying timber and farmland, and threatening homes, public and commercial facilities and communities.” Only two years ago, much of northern Spain was engulfed in fire, and if left unattended, centuries of traditional architecture, a destination traversed by millions of pilgrims, will be at risk as never before.

In terms of tourism, the peak season will be lengthened as temperatures rise and summers become progressively longer, with more tourists visiting the ancient city, which in the long run will pose a threat to the local environment and, as these climate changes threaten not only the natural environment, they will also cause damage to heritage buildings.

Destruction of cultural heritage

In 2017, a group of young people marched through the city centre and protested outside two hotels where pilgrims had stopped over in the city, waving placards (in English) ‘Pilgrims go home’ and (in Spanish) ‘Fewer pilgrims, cheaper wine. “The protesters argued that the series of uncivilized and environmentally unfriendly tourist activities by pilgrims had brought a host of problems to the city centre, such as litter, a tarnished image of the city, and higher prices, “In the medieval times the pilgrims brought culture, today they only have black feet.” The local authorities have also expressed their desire to avoid the negative issues that come with mass tourism, with the mayor stating: “Tourism is the economic driver of the city and we must create a high-quality sustainable model that allows it to live in the historic old town, where cultural heritage and tourism development develop in harmony, rather than transforming the old city into a theme park. “

UNESCO, on the occasion of the 47th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, presents a new challenge for the protection of World Heritage sites: “The presence of an excessive number of tourists poses a threat to cultural and natural monuments. Today more than 1.4 billion people worldwide travel abroad every year, and this number is set to increase to 2 billion in 2030. Cultural tourism is the leading sector in the international tourism industry and therefore the development of tourism must be combined with the enhancement of cultural heritage protection. In addition, a report co-authored by UNESCO, the United Nations Development Programme and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) (2016) states that tourism-related infrastructure such as hotels, ports and airports bring economic benefits but also increase the environmental pressure on already fragile World Heritage sites.

This is why today more and more people in the tourism industry are introducing new concepts of sustainable tourism, such as the need to minimize one’s impact on the environment when travelling, to limit carbon emissions as much as possible, to avoid flying when it is possible to travel by train, to stay in the same place as much as possible, to avoid hotels and to stay in the homes of local people as much as possible, to choose in-depth tours that allow one to get to know the local community and its way of life, and to choose to travel in depth. Choose to travel in depth to learn about the local society and way of life, rather than just to go through Europe in a week, for example, without leaving any memories except for a few photos to prove that you have been there. If we continue to squander the planet’s tourism resources without limit, future generations may or may not be able to see this culturally rich city for themselves.

In addition, according to local media (Vizoso,2017), tourism business and residents perceive that Santiago de Compostela does not provide pilgrims and tourists with enough information about cultural activities and that the local authorities do not strengthen their management and provide adequate guidance on various uncivilized and environmentally unfriendly behaviors. However, in this website you can learn about the many sustainable ways to explore the heritage site, which is what this website was built for.


Centre, U. (2021) Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/archive/convention-ch.pdf (Accessed: 29 April 2021).

Fraile, R. (2017) Are “smelly” hipsters ruining Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrim route?, EL PAÍS. Available at: https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2017/07/28/inenglish/1501234923_239922.html (Accessed: 29 April 2021).

Maqueda, A. (2021) Spain’s economy shrank 11% in 2020, in biggest drop since Civil War, EL PAÍS. Available at: https://english.elpais.com/economy_and_business/2021-01-29/spains-economy-shrank-11-in-2020-in-biggest-drop-since-civil-war.html(Accessed: 29 April 2021).

New report shows climate change threat to iconic World Heritage sites (2016). Available at: https://zh.unesco.org/news/xin-bao-gao-xian-shi-qi-hou-bian-hua-dui-biao-zhi-xing-shi-jie-yi-chan-gou-cheng-wei-xie (Accessed: 29 April 2021). 

Santiago de Compostela: tourist visits by purpose | Statista (2021). Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/765344/distribution-of-tourist-visits-to-santiago-de-compostela-by-purpose/ (Accessed: 29 April 2021).

Vizoso, S. (2017) “I’m a pilgrim. Will you shout me a drink?”, EL PAÍS. Available at: https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2017/08/15/inenglish/1502782144_363119.html (Accessed: 29 April 2021).

Vizoso, S. (2017) Four dead as wildfires ravage northwestern Spain, EL PAÍS. Available at: https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2017/10/16/inenglish/1508138852_957190.html (Accessed: 29 April 2021).

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