Sustainable tourism makes Malaga another planet

“People are shocked when they look at old pictures of the centre of Malaga,” says Jonathan Gómez Punzón, Head of the Malaga Tourism Board. “Not so many decades ago, the city centre was nasty – there were no facilities for people to live, there was nothing to do.”

To improve the quality of life for local people and make the city more attractive for tourists, the city launched a series of strategic plans in the early 2000s that have seen it undergo a complete transformation.

One of Malaga’s key concerns during this shift was sustainability, from the huge pedestrian area that replaced old road traffic, to the host of permanent amenities that replaced vendors driving in and out every day. “The change was stunning as a person living there,” Gómez Punzón recalls, “It was like waking up on another planet.”

It was like waking up on another planet.
— Jonathan Gómez Punzón

Tourism is a large part of Malaga’s economic and social life, so for the city to achieve its social and climate goals, tourism must be part of the plan. Malaga’s mayor, Francisco de la Torre, saw this when he entered office at the beginning of the century. “He transformed the city very rapidly with a concrete vision on sustainability. There were two options: Yes or yes,” Gómez Punzón remarks.

A central step in achieving these yeses was aligning policy across the city towards this shared goal. The pedestrian area in the city centre was complimented by a new pedestrian port, with good connections between the two.

Pedestrian area Malaga

New infrastructure for water, waste and energy was put in place. New social and cultural programmes embraced the city’s Roman and Muslim heritage. Malaga also developed partnerships with private industry and tech, becoming the first city in Europe to trial 4G. “You don’t become a socially just and environmentally sustainable city with a single policy,” Gómez Punzón remarks, “every part of the governance needs to be aligned – that’s how the city has succeeded.”

A victim of success

However, Malaga is keenly aware of the risk of becoming a victim of its own success. The city has controls for limiting its carrying capacity: cooperation with hotels, restaurants and other actors in the tourist industry helps to ensure that the number of tourists is limited and the city does not become overrun. “Some cities have lost absolutely all their enchantment; the balance between travelers and locals is critical,” explains Gómez Punzón.

Some cities have lost absolutely all their enchantment.
— Jonathan Gómez Punzón

The idea is also to spread out the tourism, both to prevent overcrowded tourist areas and to share the benefits of tourism more evenly across the territory. These range from the traditional neighbourhoods of local fishermen and women to the natural areas that surround the city.

The mountains and rivers that surround Malaga are a great resource for natural tourism. Creating access to these areas and diverting tourists to them serves the twofold purpose of reducing stresses on the city centre and reminding people of the ecosystems that conscientious behaviour helps to protect. Hiking trails, engaging information signs and picnic spots, as well as good connection by public transport help to push tourism out to these areas.

“We have created storytelling related to different parts of the city,” Gómez Punzón says, “and we also want to establish more cultural and lifestyle hubs in the areas surrounding the centre.” Already, new museums like the Automotive History Museum and the Russian Museum of Saint Petersburg are drawing interested visitors away from the centre.

“It’s not easy,” Gómez Punzón says, “because when tourists are planning their holidays, they all receive the same kind of inspiration.”

Countering climate effects

Together with its private partners, the city also tries to eliminate some of the waste that the tourist industry creates, for example by reducing the quantity of printed materials that are handed out to tourists in favour of an app that the city developed in 2009. The city can also use this app to make travellers conscious of its sustainability mindset, encouraging them to be conscious of sustainable behaviour.

No matter how sustainable the local policies are, or how tourists behave in Malaga, there is no avoiding the fact that travel is a major contributor to climate change. As a port city with a lot of cruise traffic, Malaga decided to engage cruise companies to push them beyond the use of fossil fuels. “The port is also moving into a hydrogen project,” Gómez Punzón says, “so the boats can charge using green energy.”

Boats could charge using green energy in Malaga port.
— Jonathan Gómez Punzón

Another way to mitigate the climate effects of tourism is to encourage people to take longer trips, rather than flying over for a day or two. Malaga would be happy to see fewer tourists staying for longer and really engaging with the city. “We don’t want to be visited by thousands of millions,” he insists, “We want to attract those travellers that really appreciate what we are for real.”

Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga
Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga

As such, the city has slowed down its advertising campaigns. “We are not pushing our destination so hard, we’re focusing our resources on developing different messages and engaging more motivated and interesting travellers.” During and after the Covid pandemic, the city also found a new demographic of travellers: People from around Europe decided to take more long-term trips to work remotely in Malaga.

CEOs, business owners, and employees in technology and other industries flocked to Malaga, and the city is leaning into this trend with its ‘Malaga Hub’ strategy. This strategy creates links between ‘digital nomads’ based in the city and ensures that they have the services and infrastructure that they need to carry out their work.

A source of pride

Bolstering the tourism industry, and doing so in an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable way creates a double advantage for the city. Not only does it lure people to Malaga all year round to create enduring memories and spread the word about the city, but the appreciation of visitors for local culture and history, and the sustainable infrastructure put in place to maintain its attractiveness radically improve the self-perception and quality of life of local people.

Since the transformation of the city began in the early 2000s, local people’s enthusiasm for their own city has grown along with tourist numbers. “People are so proud to say that they are from Malaga,” boasts Gómez Punzón, “even as our population is growing with people moving here from other European and global capitals, we have a deep sense of belonging, a proud and welcoming emotion of being Malagans.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer