Tourism, climate change, and urban sustainability are intertwined in the Canary Islands, posing risks to the environment and infrastructure. How can these risks be addressed?
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Tourist areas facing climate change: Canary Islands

Tourism, climate change, and urban sustainability are intertwined in the Canary Islands, posing risks to the environment and infrastructure. How can these risks be addressed?

The effects of climate change can reduce the attractiveness of a tourist destination, and their risks have not yet been sufficiently studied. Is it possible to establish urban strategies to reduce probable consequences such as extreme rainfall?

As far as the environment is concerned, mass tourism activity has built unsustainable urban settlements. In these days of climate change, problems such as increased average temperatures, rising sea levels, or urban flooding due to increasingly heavy rainfalls carry potential risks. Together with the alteration of heritage and landscape values, these risks can question the attractiveness of a tourist destination.

These risks, however, have not been sufficiently studied in mass tourism areas. That is why the achievement of more resilient tourism models in the face of climate change is a crucial goal. This study addresses the effects of extreme rainfall on a tourist settlement on an island with steep relief, as well as improvement strategies to counter such climate risks.

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Tourist settlements along the hillside: San Agustín Beach (Gran Canaria)

The Canary Islands are an important destination for mass tourism, which constitutes its main economic resource. This phenomenon is characterised by non-seasonal tourist activity. Occupancy levels typically increase during the winters and coincide with a greater probability of extreme rainfall, whose danger is increasing due to climate change.

The population overload due to tourism is another potential risk that the Canaries face in a natural disaster situation. This risk level is accentuated by its dependent status and limited island territory to receive immediate foreign aid.

Due to its very irregular relief, various tourist settlements have been built along Gran Canaria’s steeply sloping terrain. The case of San Agustín Beach, for instance, allows us to study hillside tourist urbanisation as a repeated model on the island. In addition to flooding, extreme rainfall can cause landslides in these hillside settlements built on unstable terrain.

This work identifies urban elements in San Agustín Beach that could be affected by slope dynamics during extreme precipitation. In addition, this paper analyses accessibility for its importance in providing assistance in emergency situations. Finally, some corrective measures are proposed to reduce the vulnerability of the area.

Risk and impact from extreme precipitation

The RiesgoMap tool includes a map of risks associated with climate change, wherein cartographic information shows slope dynamics and/or possible landslides caused by extreme rainfall (Figure 1).

Figure 1. San Agustín Beach: risk assessment based on slope dynamics.
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This tool helps to map and quantify those urban and architectural elements that may be affected by extreme precipitation: walls and slopes, buildings, open spaces, road infrastructure, etc. (Figure 2). Most of these elements are concentrated at low levels around the ravines. All of this shows the vulnerability of the area to the risk of extreme precipitation and landslides.

Figure 2. Buildings and assets are affected by extreme precipitation.
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Moreover, it is important to identify those sections of the San Agustín Beach road that would be seriously compromised in the event of extreme precipitation. Thus, in this work, we identify different scenarios represented as cuts that may occur along the roads due to flooding. This serves to test the effectiveness of the road system in emergency situations. The different assumed scenarios demonstrate that there are important urban sectors that could become isolated in emergency situations or where evacuation activities could face great difficulties (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Some possible accessibility scenarios in case of extreme precipitation.
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The affected surfaces and the number of accommodation places that would become isolated in each sector during an emergency allow us to evaluate the magnitude of these scenarios. This indicates a high probability of evacuation difficulties for a considerable number of tourists. This paper, therefore, indicates the high level of vulnerability of the San Agustín Beach road system, questioning its effectiveness in the event of extreme precipitation.

Reality and proposal of corrective measures

In San Agustín, tourist complexes are poorly located near ravines and along steep terrain. Added to this is the vulnerability of various walls and slopes that could partially fall onto adjacent buildings and public spaces. This inadequate way of urbanisation is linked to incompetent and poorly planned urban design.

In this urban plan, accessibility to different areas is possible only through road mobility, showing an absolute dependence on private transport. The region has a labyrinthine road system where many urban areas have a single access road with no exits. This urban organisation is highly vulnerable in an extreme rainfall event, as clearly demonstrated in Figure 3, because it affects accessibility in emergency situations. This disorderly nature of the road system, added to a mainly short-term tourist population, will cause disorientation among tourists in catastrophic situations.

Consequently, some measures are proposed to reduce the vulnerability of San Agustín Beach and improve care in emergency situations. Improving the stormwater drainage network is necessary but not sufficient. To correct accessibility problems, therefore, the number of dead-end roads has to be reduced. Accordingly, this paper proposes new road connections for dead-end roads, which solve the various possible outage scenarios in the event of extreme precipitation (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Alternatives to reduce vulnerability.
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On the other hand, in disaster situations, public spaces can serve as meeting points for the population. Hence, different public and collective spaces are identified in this study, and linked to the proposed routes for establishing a safe network of spaces and routes as a corrective measure to reduce the vulnerability of San Agustín Beach in the event of extreme precipitation and landslides.

These strategies can become part of evacuation plans that could minimize the risk of decision-making in urban planning.

Conclusion

Climate change constitutes a threat to mass tourist settlements, making it necessary to design strategies to reduce different risk levels in case of extreme weather events. The case of San Agustín Beach exemplifies the vulnerability of tourist settlements along hillsides, which could suffer considerable material damage in the face of extreme events and even possible loss of human life. In the current context of climate change, the convenience of building locations, the absolute dependence on road mobility, and the presence of a labyrinthine road system may be questioned. The detection of such critical points in urban settlements accentuates their vulnerability to climate change risks.

However, the risks of extreme rainfall can be reduced through corrective measures. In addition to improving the rainwater drainage network, it is also possible to upgrade road infrastructure and public/ collective spaces to create a network of safe routes and areas. There are especially useful tools, such as the RiesgoMap, that can help minimise risks from extreme weather events (such as avoiding dead-end roads). These strategies should be considered in advance during the urban design and planning stage to promote the climate resilience of destinations for mass tourism.

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Journal reference

Ley Bosch, P., de Castro González, Ó., & García Sánchez, F. (2023). Mass tourism urban destinations and climate change in small islands: resilience to extreme rainfall in the Canary Islands. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 1-21. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-023-03406-7

Doctorate in Architecture and MSc in Urban Planning. Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Territorial Planning at the Architecture School of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (ULPGC) and a guest professor at various universities. Among other works, he is the author of books such as "Change of Direction", "Roads and Collective Space in the Disperse City", or "The Construction of Tourist Space". Among his areas of research, "Tourism, Landscapes, and Collective Spaces" stand out, focusing on the tourism phenomenon in relation to specific collective spaces and landscapes for leisure experiences.

Doctorate in Architecture and MSc in Architectural Heritage and Historical City. Expert in Urban Planning and Territorial Planning at the Architecture School of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (ULPGC). His doctoral dissertation, "The Collective Space in the Tourist City: The Case of Maspalomas Costa Canaria", addresses the relationship between mass tourism destinations along the seaside and the design of collective spaces.

With a Doctorate in Architecture, he serves as an Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Territorial Planning at the University of Cantabria, Spain. He boasts a lengthy professional and research career in urban and regional planning, with numerous research projects and academic publications to his name. As a specialist in climate change adaptation, he directs the Santander Adaptation Plan and a LIFE project on coastal adaptation on the islands of Macaronesia, funded by the EU Next Generation funds.