The holiday hotspots among Spain’s 48 worst ‘black flag’ beaches

Playa Blanca beach in Lanzarote
A sewage spill led to the temporary closure of the popular Playa Blanca beach in Lanzarote - Alamy

A Spanish environmental group has published a report singling out the worst beaches in Spain for pollution, plastic waste and environmental destruction, with popular holiday resorts featuring on the list.

The report by Ecologists in Action includes two popular beaches in Ibiza. Talamanca Beach is singled out for illegal anchoring, which damages underwater plants, and wastewater contamination from a nearby treatment plant. While Cala Xarraca is listed for the “incomprehensible” development of a megahotel next to the beach.

A beach in Alcoa on Spain’s north coast is affected by a so-called “red sludge pond” due to hazardous waste dumping, while various locations on the Costa Brava are flagged up for the impact of private boats, which they say erode the natural environment and damage marine biodiversity.

Just north of Alicante, Amerador beach is singled out due to two recent instances of faecal discharges (in March and April) from a nearby pumping station, and the popular Playa Blanca beach in Lanzarote also received a black flag due to a sewage spill which led to the beach’s temporary closure in May 2024.

On the south coast, the Castell de Ferro beach in Granada is highlighted for the development of a beach bar, which involved the uprooting of vegetation and palm trees, while the Malaga coast is black-listed for the dumping of plastic containers and packaging during the annual San Juan festival (this year’s will occur on Sunday, June 23), during which thousands of revellers light firecrackers and bonfires on the beach.

The annual Black Flag Report, which follows an 5,000-mile inspection of the Spanish coast, singles out two flags per province or city, but Ecologists in Action say the list could be longer: “Unfortunately there could be many more flags that we award year after year.”

The group blames “touristification” and “urbanisation” as the biggest problems affecting the Spanish coastline, and claims Spanish policy makers are supporting a “suicidal and limitless race [...] for the exclusive benefit of business interests”.

The report goes into detail on the effects of tourism in the Canary Islands, describing tourist activity as “highly intensive in the requirement of large quantities of materials and energy” which in turn generates “enormous quantities of waste and pollutants”.

They say the Canary Islands has an ecological footprint equivalent to a territory 27 times its size, and that Tenerife dumps the equivalent of 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools of polluted water into the sea every day.

La Tejita beach in Tenerife
La Tejita beach in Tenerife - Alamy

Some specific hotels are singled out in the 167-page report. The Oliva Beach and Tres Islas hotels, owned by RIU in Fuerteventura, are listed for being developed  “in the middle of [...] the Dunes of Corralejo”. The report says that the Government of the Canary Islands has taken the side of the “offending company”, rather than defending the common good of the islanders.

The environmental group also singles out La Tejita and Cuna del Alma hotels in Tenerife for “failing to comply with environmental laws”, Corralejo Pier and the Dreamland project in Fuerteventura for “occupying protected spaces”, and two 2,000 bed-plus resorts that have been approved on the islands of El Hierro and La Palma.

The ecological report singles out plastic waste as a major problem across Spanish beaches, and highlights two industrial spillages in recent months. It refers to an environmental incident earlier in 2024, where millions of tiny plastic pellets washed up on the Galician coast, and also points to an incident where plastic pellets were discharged from the Camp de Tarragona petrochemical plant onto the beaches of the Costa Dorada, which is described as “almost more plastic than sandy”.

Spain is not the only European country with polluted waters. While most of the beaches along France’s Côte d’Azur enjoy high water quality, the stretch around Cap d’Antibes and particularly the Plage de la Gravette is highlighted as “poor” by European Environment Agency – in 2023, tourists were banned from swimming there due to high levels of dangerous bacteria found in sewage discharge.

In Sicily, the beaches around the city of Palermo have deteriorated in recent years, with the Messina Marine and Lido Olimpo now rated as “poor” by the EEA. There are frequent bathing bans at these spots due to faecal bacteria in the water.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, the environmental NGO, ZERO, warned that the beaches across the country are becoming more dangerous for swimmers: in 2022 there were 21 “do not swim” notices, but that rose to 28 beaches in 2023.