Living in the Spanish beach bars

Article published on Aug. 3, 2004
community published
Article published on Aug. 3, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Residential tourism has caused an urban explosion on the Southern coasts of Europe. Soon the beaches will be cemented over.

The German Sunday newspaper Bild am Sonntag publicised a short while ago the scuffles between German and English tourists trying to save pool deckchairs at a Torremolinos hotel. The English often complain that the Germans (who like to get up earlier than the English) unfairly save several deckchairs with their towels, taking over the hotel pool. The English retaliated by occupying the deckchairs anyway, ignoring the Germans’ towels.

In order to avoid this cultural clash of the purest Huntington style, a new type of tourism has emerged, removed from the concept of sunburnt tourists in all-inclusive hotels: residential tourism.

The facts speak for themselves. According to a survey carried out by Barclays bank, Britons bought 40% of new houses built on the Spanish coast in 2003. And if we look at information from the German AMS group, 1,700,000 foreign families could buy a second home in Spain in the next 5 years. The reasons for this extreme emigration seem to be the meteoric rise in property prices in the United Kingdom, low cost airlines and the low interest rates in Europe.

Spain for sale

Viva España, a promotional event held for the first time in London in 2002 and which in 2004 hopes to flood Dublin with sangria, flamenco and tapas, was created with the objective of selling a clichéd Spain to the English. The French coasts also have their dose of residential tourism from northern Europe: with a similar name, Vive la France 2004 - also in London and with the same property philosophy - has continued to Europeanise France for another year.

Residential tourism is causing explosive population growth and uncontrolled urbanisation in some European coastal areas, especially in Spain, the first world market in the second homes sector. Their supporters state that this type of tourism is the main source of local funding, a source of foreign currency and foreign investments and a boost to infrastructure development. Residential tourism, they say, will make the learning of foreign languages easier, will facilitate the understanding of different cultures in other countries and will help to create a society of public services.

However, not everything is so bucolic. Residential tourism harms the locals. The value of Spanish properties increases each year, in some cases at an unsustainable rate (a 21% increase on the Balearic Islands, tripling the normal rates) causing a decrease in domestic demand for first homes. The property sector compensates for this downturn by stimulating residential tourism, aggravating the housing problem for the population of countries where sun is guaranteed. The property problem of southern Europe could hardly get any worse. In the past year one in five mortgages in the Euro zone was taken out in Spain and the average age at which people buy their first home has increased to 30 years old, the highest in Europe.

Catch 22 situation

The speculation that hangs around the well-meaning German and British money seriously endangers the natural and cultural heritage of the southern European coasts. The abundance of golf courses (in Malaga alone there are plans to create more than 40), theme parks, high speed race tracks, housing estates and shopping centres threaten holm-oak woods, aquifers and the real longevity of the Spanish, French and Italian rural ways. Or, putting it another way, residential tourism could be destroying the attractions that spawn it.

The social repercussions also start to become real. Leisure and amusement centres and the theme parks created to feed the tourist demand suffocate local businesses and encourage job instability. Residential tourism is more invasive than hotel tourism because it needs more land and it generates less labour, causing impoverishment on the coasts that host the new tourists.

The EU should avoid forming these ghettos supported by property speculators. Sustainable alternatives to the expansion of residential tourism need to be found. Rural, cultural and domestic tourism seem to contribute more to exchange and knowledge between cultures than the simple colonisation of the coast with financial aims. We need to find a balance between commercialisation and the conservation of identity and heritage. The cultural and natural capital of the EU cannot be in the hands of the tourist industry. And if none of these work, then we could think about declaring Mallorca the seventeenth German Bundesland. Typically Spanish.