Every year, With the granting of the blue flags by the private entity that promotes them, both expectations and controversies are generated. On the one hand, these distinctions are longed for by many Spanish tourist destinations to be able to exhibit them as a guarantee of quality of beaches, coves and other bathing areas. But at the same time, More and more voices are emerging that question both their real usefulness and the criteria with which they are awarded.. Are blue flags really good for anything? Do they obey objective parameters?
Last summer, a scientific investigation entitled ‘Spatio-temporal evolution of the beaches with a blue flag in the Balearic Islands (1987-2018), consequences in their improvement and morphological recovery’, prepared by geographers and geologists from the Universitat de les Illes Balears (UIB) and the Universitat of Girona. The conclusion was that “The blue flags have not served in any case to improve, restore or reverse the degradation caused by frequenting coastal areas”.
The work of Francesc Xavier Roig, Josep Pintó, José Àngel Martín Prieto and Antonio Rodríguez Perea analyzed 20 beaches of the islands distinguished with the Blue Flag and confirmed that this award, by itself, “has not contributed to the geomorphological improvement of the systems beach-dune”.
“In the analyzed beaches there are no improvements linked to the Blue Flag. Therefore, we must rethink the usefulness of this label or put into practice new environmental accreditation criteria that adapt to the complexities and particularities of the beaches, without thinking of them as a simple solarium”, add the scientific authors of the study.
Where do the blue flags come from? This is an award given for the first time in France in 1985 by a private foundation and, given the acceptance it achieved, the idea spread rapidly throughout Europe first and to other countries of the world later. But already from the first years voices arose that questioned the criteria used. The flags are currently awarded in Spain by the Association for Environmental and Consumer Education (ADEAC) and the Foundation for Environmental Education.
The main objection is that “a beach can only have a blue flag if it is full of services and infrastructure, that is, urbanized. It will be difficult for a natural and totally virgin beach to have this distinction, despite the fact that what the entity that grants them advocates is the defense of the environment. It is a total contradiction”, pointed out a few summers ago the mayor of a tourist town who had given up on aspiring to this award.
“No positive contribution in geoenvironmental terms”
Moreover, they could even be counterproductive. The authors of the scientific study from the University of Girona and the University of the Balearic Islands add that “the blue flag favors high levels of attendance associated with the provision of services, including recreational ones. Does not make any positive contribution in geoenvironmental terms nor does it give priority to knowing the natural conditions of the beaches. Many municipalities have already decided to dispense with the blue flags and have opted for other figures, such as EMAS or ISO certifications”.
Mayors of Catalonia and also tourism officials from the Balearic Islands have openly criticized the initiative: “They are still an advertising brand, and in no case, a quality brand”affirmed the mayor of Begur, on the Costa Brava, Joan Manuel Loureiro, in the summer of 2017. In addition, “the audits that are carried out on these beaches are practically non-existent,” he added.
For his part, the former vice president of the Balearic Government, Biel Barceló, already pointed out that “blue flags are one thing and the quality of the beaches is another”, and emphasized another aspect: “It makes no sense to pay a company for something [los controles] which is already done”. Barceló affirmed that the company in charge of the blue flags asked the Government “a canon of 21,000 euros that the Government considered was not a priority”.
The organizing entity defends the initiative
The director of the Blue Flag in Spain, Ana Pérez-Montero, for her part, points out that “Blue Flag is financed through contracts, agreements and subsidies from various ministries in the Autonomous Communities of Andalusia, Asturias, the Canary Islands, Catalonia, the Valencian Community, Galicia, Extremadura, and Murcia, in addition to the Álava Provincial Council and the Autonomous Cities of Ceuta and Melilla, so that the municipalities and marinas do not have to pay any fee. In the Balearic Islands and Cantabria, the municipalities and marinas pay a participation fee of around 450 euros per application. With these amounts, he adds, the expenses of material, personnel, activities and advice that the entity deploys are covered.
Pérez-Montero points out that not just any beach can obtain this award: “The first requirement for the Blue Flag is that the quality of the bathing water is excellent., according to the samplings that are carried out during the bathing season. There are 29 criteria that are divided into four categories: water quality, information and environmental education, environmental management of the beach, including compliance with the Coastal Law, waste management, the existence of toilets on the beaches , security, which includes adequate human resources and lifeguard materials on each beach and services for people with disabilities”.
However, the person in charge of the entity admits that not always a virgin beach, completely preserved, will be able to aspire to these flags, because minimum infrastructures are required: “One of the Blue Flag criteria establishes that the beaches must be easily accessible, so if a virgin beach is reached through a dangerous access, it could not be awarded the Blue Flag. In terms of infrastructure, Blue Flag requires the existence of public toilets that can be located in the car park, they do not have to be on the sand. A lifeguard post is required, which can be in the car park, and one or more surveillance points, depending on the extension of the beach, they can be mobile and removed every day. Blue Flag does not require showers, hammocks or any other infrastructure.
Regarding the controversy that sometimes arises the criteria for awarding the badge, the organization defends the system used and denies that these criteria are changing. “What they do require is continuous improvement and some are applied gradually, with mechanisms for deadlines and commitments. So, the Jury can award the blue flag to a beach that has a slight breach of the Coastal Law, if the city council agrees to solve that breach for the following year”.
Despite being an initiative that seeks to reward environmental quality, it was not until this edition in “Blue Flag in Spain has incorporated criteria on coastal defense. For this edition, the coastal municipalities must identify the habitats of community interest by priority for dune regeneration or by the presence of Posidonia or other protected seagrass species. They must also start the project for the installation of fencing of dune areas, if they do not have fencing, identify infrastructures that could be on the dune areas and start the procedures for its removal. For next summer, the Blue Flag will ensure that all the priority habitats for dune regeneration have improved their state of conservation, through the gradual implementation of this criterion”, assures Ana Pérez-Montero.
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