In this exclusive, hard-hitting dispatch, author Chris Stewart warns that in selling out to developers, Spain risks destroying its tourist industry. In a call to arms, that cannot be ignored, he asks that everyone stands up to be counted before the interior is also destroyed like the coast
FOR those who have never had the pleasure of seeing an unspoilt Mediterranean coastline, I recommend you take the journey along the north coast of Morocco, as I did last year. It was truly, heartbreakingly beautiful, the sort of landscape one dreams of. Never again though will we see a coastal landscape of such beauty on the Spanish side of the straits; because every last inch of coast has been ‘developed,’ confined in a choking collar of concrete. Even the National Parks, Doñana, Cabo de Gata, Grazalema, are not spared, as the developers, hungry for more land, seek to eliminate every last remaining pine or cliff and replace them with new buildings.
In spite of this the tourists keep on coming… around 40 million of them a year. But there are glitches; the numbers are not quite as reliable as one would like to think. Cheap air travel is taking the tourist farther afield, to Central and Eastern Europe, to the Americas and the Orient. The Spanish are now demanding a reasonable European wage, like that of the northerners who come to holiday in their country. Thus prices rise, and those north Europeans no longer get so much for their money.
The beauty of the coasts has now vanished. Although this is only a minor consideration to most holidaymakers, there is a feeling among many that a holiday destination ought to be at least a little different from the drab urban agglomerations where they live and work.
And then there’s the jellyfish. A town on the coast in a hot country is no fun at all unless you can bathe in the sea. In the past the presence of jellyfish has been limited by their predators, and also by the barrier of fresh or brackish water that hugs the coasts as a result of the rivers draining the land and pouring into the sea.
Our rapacious demand for fish has so thinned the seas of their population of tuna and others that predated on the jellyfish, that now the numbers of medusas swell into countless billions. We have built too, on the beaches where the turtles laid their eggs, and so, little by little the numbers of these sensitive creatures have dwindled, and the medusas multiplied, for the turtles too, took a heavy toll on the jellyfish.
And finally, we built great dams… magnificent feats of engineering, to store the waters of the rivers, to irrigate the golf courses on the coasts, and fill the pools of the urbanisations, to water the gardens and satisfy the cravings of those north Europeans for cool water in a hot climate. As a result the rivers no longer reach the sea. Of course there are consequences: the coastal shelves, eroded by the ceaseless motion of the waves, are no longer replenished. The beaches recede and new sand has to be trucked in, or pumped from the Sahara – fabulous technology. But how much of this can the poor, labouring planet sustain?
But also, it was the ring of agua dulce (sweet water) that kept away the jellyfish that had not been eaten by the fish that we have eaten. We can’t put the sweet water back; there’s not enough rain in these latitudes to nourish the poor rivers, themselves confined by their collars of concrete.
So the tourists, lodged in the hot towns on the coasts can no longer cool themselves in the sea. A sting from a jellyfish is no joke. Quite simply, those tourists won’t come back. And if the tourists don’t come, the economy collapses, and we have a cataclysm: massive unemployment, social unrest, ruthless policing… we’re back to the days before tourism came to kickstart the moribund Spanish economy.
And now that the coast has been concreted to the very last pine, the developers are starting on the hinterland. In spite of the fact that, as a result of climate change, the snowlines are receding and the skiing seasons are shorter, there is a plan to install a cable-car to the heights of the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Granada. This lunatic scheme is designed to whisk 3,000 people an hour from the city to the slopes where they can slither around on the little ice that remains among the rocks, in the company of the tens of thousands who have already come up by car. The developers don’t care – they make their killing before the thing is even completed; and when Cetursa (who administrate the Sierra Nevada skiing) and the others come bleating that it was all a terrible mistake, they’re hardly going to give the money back.
Ronda, one of the most beautiful and emblematic landscapes of all Andalucía, has been ravaged, the beauty of the city and its surrounding landscapes degraded by heedless speculation. And as if this were not enough, there is a plan to put a final nail in the coffin of this once lovely region, by the construction of a monster golf complex called Los Merinos, a gated community of hundreds of luxury houses, and theme park. Next door there is already a motor racing track open, and another golf project called Parchite is being promoted by the town hall across the road.
And this in a landscape protected by UNESCO for its particular beauty.
The developers know they are acting illegally, but they also know they can get away with it. I read a headline in newspaper El País the other day that said La Justicia lamenta su impotencia contra la política del ladrillo (The courts lament their powerlessness against the politics of building speculation).
There are too many outrageous cases to be mentioned in one article. Look hard though at Murcia; keep an eye on what remains of the lovely Costa de la Luz; there are no fewer than 80,000 new homes planned for Estepona, and tens of thousands planned for Almuñecar, Almería, Antequera and Arcos, to take but a few examples alphabetically. This at a time when there are no less than three million homes unsold and uninhabited in the country as a whole.
Nothing remains now of the Vega of Granada except perhaps the villages of Gójar and Dílar, with their surrounding campiñas of rolling hills and cornfields. This is one of the few patches of unspoilt landscape remaining on the northern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. But the speculators are here, too, with plans for two golf courses, 3,200 luxury homes in a gated community and a theme park – ironically based on a theme of water, a commodity of which there is barely enough to supply the existing villages and the city. And this scheme, which has already been mired in corruption allegations in other incarnations (it was previously thrown out from Valladolid, as a result of irregularities), has now come to Andalucía.
Here, too, it is already surrounded by charges of supposed corruption (as reported by the Olive Press) in spite of its being developed by a so-called ‘ecological’ consortium of architects: our very own Sir Richard Rogers, he of Barajas’ beautiful Terminal Four, and, perhaps less felicitously, of the Millennium Dome.
So, the coasts have gone, and now the developers are turning their sights upon the hinterland. This is news to no one; people know about this, and deep down they do care; ask anyone, any Spaniard, and you will find that they, too, are appalled by what is happening to their once beautiful land… but they feel powerless.
Something is clearly wrong with a system that is so open to abuses, but central and regional governments seem unable, or unwilling, to take action against the corrupt few who enrich themselves heedlessly at the expense of the future of the land we shall pass on to our children and grandchildren.
The Spanish though, have a genius for making the voice of the people heard. Some of you may remember the plans of the military to build a radar dome on the top of Sierra Nevada? The public was outraged and took to the streets and prevailed.
Perhaps it’s time to take action again. For, as Al Gore asks us in An Inconvenient Truth, if we fail to act how shall we explain to our grandchildren what we allowed to be done to their poor, battered inheritance?