‘Robinson Crusoe-style’ resorts, golf courses, and an influx of German tour operators, a new frontline is being drawn up along the Costa de la Luz, between developers and nature lovers.
By Jon Clarke and Jenny Keane
VISIT El Palmar and beaches around the Trafalgar lighthouse on any weekend, and you will find surfers, kiteboarders and the young and old relaxing on the sands. Look more closely and among them you will find a smattering of captains of industry, politicians and celebrities enjoying one of the final frontiers of unspoilt coastline left in Spain.
Lined with a handful of thatched restaurants and bars, the fronds of the beaches are tree-lined and devoid of concrete expanses, unlike most of Andalucia. It’s a relaxed ‘vibe’ that attracts people who precisely don’t want five-star luxury, and the usual bingo halls and golf resorts that come with it.
But alarmingly that lifestyle is be under threat with a whole raft of plans on the drawing board for luxury hotels, housing projects and even, of course, golf courses.
Not disimilar to what has happened up at Chiclana to the west, if the plans go ahead a “Robinson Crusoe-style” resort is to be built for German package tourists, while at least six huge four and five star hotels might pockmark the wonderful stretch of unspoilt coastline between Conil and Barbate.
The historic Trafalgar lighthouse, off which the famous naval battle was once waged, will be at its epicentre.
“The mayors of Vejer and Barbate want to bring in a different kind of tourism – more upmarket with plenty of new hotels,” says Thierry Lopez of Hostal La Gallega, in El Palmar. “But four and five-star hotels would completely alter the character of the place.
“This is one of the last places left on the whole Andalucian coastline that isn’t entirely built on, so it is incredible to think – after what has been done everywhere else – that they will make the same mistake again.”
So what exactly is being planned for El Palmar and Trafalgar? And how likely is it to happen?
It is not good news, if you are a nature lover. At the northern end of El Palmar, beside the Castilnovo tower, for example, permission was given for two hotels with up to 580 rooms each, a nine-hole golf course and a spa in 2007.
The promoters dangled the carrot that it will bring 300 jobs to the area
The development by the Riera Marsá company was given the green light after several years of consultation and environmental studies that formed part of the planning process.
The plans were strongly opposed by local environmental groups, including Ecologistas en Accion, Agaden and Conil-based heritage group La Laja, which collected 11,000 signatures for a petition to save the area.
They claim that Castilnovo is home to important species of flora and fauna which need to be protected. The Junta’s environment minister replied by saying that while parts of the coast were already protected the rest had nothing that merited special measures.
La Laja has condemned the plans to build the hotel as “the first attack on what constitutes an important virgin space.”
Of course, the promoters insisted it would be good for the area, dangling the normally used carrot that it will bring 300 jobs to the area. They claimed it was a sensitive, low-level development of only two storeys and being “at right angles to the beach”, there would be large areas of green space.
But José Manuel Herrera of the local environmental group Agaden is less convinced of its benefits. He insists the authorities should be encouraging a different kind of tourism – one that is not bound up with big hotel complexes.
“A development of this kind could spoil the very things which they should be using to sell the area,” he explains.
This month his wishes came true when it was announced by the developer (see front page) that the project had been scrapped due to problems of raising the finance.
But this however, does not mean that another developer might not move in.
Indeed, the local town hall is still hoping this is the case.
There are similar problems elsehwere. Further south, at Trafalgar – in the area between the famous lighthouse and the hamlet of Zahora – another deal has been the subject of serious squabbles over recent months.
The huge area of coastal land was acquired from the local Castro family for around 10 million euros eight years ago. A scheme was soon put forward to Barbate council to build two four-star hotels with 950 rooms.
To be built by German-based tour operator TUI, alongside Spanish group Hipotels, the scheme would have led to the “metamorphosis” of Trafalgar, according to one local newspaper.
But the scheme quickly ran into trouble on environmental grounds because the area is a local beauty spot.
Eventually, after numerous modifications were proposed, the regional government gave the green light for a project in 2007, something of a black year for the Costa de la Luz in environmental terms.
However the Hipotels group soon pulled out with Junta restrictions reducing the scheme to 600 bedrooms and lowering the building density from 72,000 to 45,000 sq metres.
Tui however have soldiered on and the project aimed at the German market is still likely to take place next to virgin sand dunes right opposite the lighthouse.
Said to be some sort of “Robinson Crusoe-type” hotel, it has recently come a little unstuck, according to sources, with the Junta insisting that the number of rooms per metre must be lowered yet again.
As James Stewart, of nearby Madreselva hotel explained: “They have been told to build even less rooms and TUI are now insisting that the price of the land must come down if the scheme is to be viable. It has caused a massive squabble.”
This is a really important area in terms of habitat for birds, and plants
Barbate council has also earmarked another large piece of land called La Yeguada further inland for a second hotel development, but according to sources within the town hall, while there is “plenty of interest” there has so far been no deal struck.
Also nearby, between Zahora and El Palmar, lies another rural zone at risk. Known as the Mangueta, a large tract of land has been bought up by a consortium, said to include the former Real Madrid president, Florentino Pérez.
No formal proposal has yet been put forward, but the initial draft of Vejer’s general town plan (PGOU) – still a long way off being approved – makes provision for various hotels and an 18-hole golf course in this area.
Plans are also underway to urbanise 1.5 million square metres of land in El Palmar (or the equivalent of around 1,500 homes) with the possibility of a further one million square metres later. There is even – incredibly – the possible provision for a technology park.
The move has been strongly attacked by green group Ecologístas en Acción as “the triumph of illegality over the need for planning”.
“El Palmar is one of the few unspoiled beaches on this part of the coast,” said spokeswoman Lola Yllescas.
“They say these hotels will only have two floors – but any buildings in this area will have a huge impact. This is a really important area in terms of habitat for birds and plants.
“As for this argument about bringing jobs and money into the area – we’ve heard it all before, for 20 years we’ve been given this line and it’s not true. Look at the big hotels in Novo Sancti Petri, for example; of the 13 hotels there, only five stay open all year round. So for the majority of the year, these huge buildings are lying empty, unproductive, certainly not offering any employment.
“If the authorities want to boost the economy of the area, why don’t they put more money into the traditional sectors like agriculture and fishing?”
The last words appropriately go to Hugh Cornwall of huge British band the Stranglers. “I like it at El Palmar precisely because it isn’t developed. It’s just in its natural state and so peaceful.
“The idea of hotels being built here is just abhorrent. At least the people who’ve put up their houses illegally in El Palmar haven’t built anything like that – they haven’t ruined it.
If people want to go to big smart hotels, there are plenty elsewhere on the coast – why do they want to put more here?
“There are so few places that are left untouched; this is an absolute gem and they just shouldn’t mess with it. It’s a special place – and after all, you don’t sell off the crown jewels, do you?”