Spain. The Mediterranean Coast and its Transformation.

When Rose Macauley drove down the long Mediterranean coast (“fabled shore,” she called it) in 1949, she commented on the Spanish habit of staring and pointing at foreign visitors owing to their rarity. A few people had discovered the Costa Brava, but beginning in the early 1960s an invasion of Northern Europeans took place. 

Attracted by sun, sand, sangría and cheap accommodation and helped by an industrial boom in their countries, British, Germans and Scandinavians flocked to the “fabled shore.” Soon there were other costasdorada, del azahar, cálida, blanca, tropicalde Almeríadel sol, and as more older foreigners started to settle permanently along the Mediterranean a costa geriátrica was mischievously added by locals.

What this invasion did was to change the nature of the Mediterranean coast from a largely fishing and agricultural economy to a long and –unfortunately, for much of the coast— garish vacation and retirement strip. True, it provided much needed jobs for Spaniards.

Construction boomed as hotels and restaurants were quickly built along the costas from the Pyrenees to Gibraltar.  But quantity rather than quality marked these early developments, which became a blight in many areas.  By the 1970s there was an increase in tourists arriving by car, and a new major highway was constructed, snaking down the Mediterranean coast like a giant scar.

This tourist invasion also had an unforeseen effect: it suddenly exposed Spaniards cocooned in the past from foreign habits and from the sight of young, carefree foreigners, including unchaperoned women in two-piece bathing suits.

Under the Franco dictatorship (1939-75), the wearing of bikinis or two-piece swimsuits was strictly forbidden until the early 1950s. The change came following a famous trip on his Vespa scooter by the mayor of Benidorm –Pedro Zaragoza– to Madrid to petition General Franco himself for permission to allow women to wear two-piece suits. Zaragoza got his wish despite the apoplectic opposition of the bishops of the Catholic church. See  Giles Tremlett has an excellent chapter dealing with the effects of tourism on the Mediterranean coast, pointedly entitled “How the bikini saved Spain.” Well worth reading. July 5, 2023. El Pais newspaper has an interesting article on the way the bikini undermined fascism in the 1950s and helped to convert the sleepy fishing village of Benidorm into a cosmopolitan city. See:  

These Spaniards included not only those living on the coast, but also the thousands of young people who left their conservative, inland villages: young men to work on construction sites and young women to be employed as maids in the booming hotels. These in turn took back to their villages news of what was happening on the coast; the bolder ones might even wear more “fashionable” clothes on a return visit. 

Although a cultural shock, the tourist invasion was instrumental in its way in fostering a degree of social sophistication that helped Spain during the transition years following Franco’s death in 1975.

In 1960 some 6 million people visited Spain; in 2007 the number was almost 60 million according to the World Tourism Organization (with headquarters in Madrid), well more than the population of Spain itself. Although other areas have increased their percentage of tourists, the vast majority still head for the Mediterranean costas.

The Mediterranean coast is not all about vacationing visitors, however. With all their tourist attractions, Barcelona and Valencia are also large ports and industrial cities. Vineyards can now be seen inland from Barcelona to Almería; rice is grown in the Ebro delta and south of Valencia (this is the land of the famous rice-based dish, paella).

Valencia is also famous for its oranges groves which add a bright colour to the dry landscape (lemons and peaches are also grown in the region).  Much of the irrigation system in this area (called huertas) was created centuries ago by the Moors, and any dispute over water distribution is still governed by the Water Tribunal (Tribunal de las aguas) which meets at the Door of the Apostles (Puerta de los Apóstoles) of the Cathedral in Valencia on Thursdays at midday. All proceedings are oral and no written records are kept!

Not the Wild West, but Tabernas, “one of the homes of the spaghetti western”!

Further down the coast, inland from Murcia and Almería, intensely irrigated acres covered by plastic produce fruit and vegetables destined for the markets of Northern Europe. If you enjoy western movies, you’ll want to drop by the village of Tabernas, about 30 kilometres north of Almería.  This is one of the homes of spaghetti westerns made famous by “A Fistful of Dollars” and its sequels.  The heyday of these westerns was the 1960s and 70s, but the sets are still there, now converted into a theme park called Mini Hollywood.

The Costa del Sol –which runs approximately from Almería to Gibraltar– was once an idyllic coast of small fishing villages, but it was also poverty stricken. Apart from some British presence in Málaga in the 19th century, and English residents on trips from Gibraltar after the Second World War, foreign visitors were a rarity. That all changed in the 1960s when the Costa del Sol from Málaga to Estepona quickly became an uninspiring strip of resorts catering to package tours on cheap flights, particularly from Britain. Cheap hotels and concrete blocks devoured the coastline where an estimated 300.000 foreigners now live, most of them retired. The British settled here fondly refer to it as the Costa not-a-lota, an allusion to how cheap it is to live here compared to Britain. There are also pockets of substantial wealth (Puerto Banús, for example) and marinas full of expensive boats. The 1980s were a lean period, and a lot of soul searching took place in the face of stiff competition from other Mediterranean countries. Since then there have been improvements (refurbished hotels, promenades, marinas etc), but there’s no escaping the impression that this is the product of the package-tour industry.

The situation has changed drastically for the British retirees on the Costa del Sol following the economic woes of the last few months.  The BBC reports (March 2, 2009) that the fall of the pound against the euro has left many many in financial difficulties. But selling their property is not easy either, since the housing market has also collapsed.

Tremlett, Giles  Ghosts of Spain: Travels through Spain and its Silent Past New York, Berlin, London 2008.
See for a perceptive analysis of Spain’s current (2011) housing problems in general.