IT is a love affair that has seen one of the biggest exoduses in European history.
Attracted by the climate, the lifestyle and the prospect of a new beginning, millions of Britons have upped sticks to make new lives in Spain.
Spurred on by holiday programmes and property shows around the UK, the move south has been relentless for 50 years as more and more people were seduced by the Spanish dream.
Then 18 months ago, the recession officially struck, and it hit hard, arguably harder in Britain and Spain than anywhere else in Europe.
Suddenly, everything that expatriates in Spain had relied on – a strong pound, comfortable pensions and reliable, dependable jobs – ceased to exist.
The bubble burst in such catastrophic fashion that, according to a recent Moneycorp survey, some 74 per cent of expatriates are now considering moving home, while 37 per cent are actively looking to return.
Blaming it on the weakening of the pound and the property slump, the poll insisted that Brits in Spain were “particularly suffering”.
So has the Spanish dream really turned sour for so many people? And are these statistics really true?
Prices have certainly rocketed, perhaps up to 25 per cent in five years.
On the face of it, things are certainly much harder for expatriates these days, not helped by an economy in free fall and unemployment over 20 per cent.
But can the Moneycorp survey – picked up by the Daily Telegraph – really be trusted when it only accounted for 250 British expatriates polled around Europe, not even just Spain?
Certainly, when it comes to pensioners – of which there are an estimated 350,000 in Spain – the case might be true.
Without a doubt they have been the hardest hit by the deflation of the pound (it has dropped from 1.60 euros to the pound two years ago to just 1.14 today) coupled with rising prices.
“Prices have certainly rocketed, perhaps up to 25 per cent in five years and pensioners are finding it hard to cover their living costs,” says Tony Aldous, of Age Concern, in Estepona.
Maurice Featherman, of Age Care Association, agrees: “In times of crisis, it is always the most vulnerable who suffer the most and expatriate pensioners certainly are.
“We are always receiving plenty of enquiries regarding how to return to the UK and I know two people personally who went back last week.
“People are increasingly finding it difficult to support themselves. They have nothing to live on, the fall in value of the pound has been catastrophic.”
However his colleague Charles Betty believes the drift back is as much due natural demographics as the stuttering economy.
“All the young hopefuls that came over to Spain in the 70s and 80s as part of the great British exodus are now reaching pensioner age,” explains Betty.
“Their thoughts are now turning to how they want to live out the rest of their lives.
“People worry what will happen when they turn 85 and wonder who will care for them.
“For the Spanish, traditional family values mean that they are cared for by their loved ones, this is often not a realistic possibility over here for expatriate pensioners.”
“Deep down, expatriates would prefer to stay and endure the crisis then go back to the UK.”
But it is not just the charities who have seen the tangible results of the worst recession in 70 years.
Removal firms are also seeing increasing numbers of people moving back to the UK. “Some 60 per cent of our calls used to be from Britons enquiring about moving to Spain,” explains Matthew Murray, boss of Murray Harper removal firm in Estepona.
“Nowadays this has completely reversed and around 90 per cent of all the calls we get are from people wanting to move back to the UK.”
Other companies, such as Focus Transport have seen a similar trend.
Moreover, financial firms have also seen indications that a growing number of people are considering their options.
“We are seeing more money getting changed from euros into sterling than at any other time during recent years,” says Keith Spitalnick, Currencies Direct business development manager for Spain and Portugal.
However, the British consul in Malaga, Steve Jones, poured cold water on reports of a mass drift home.
He told the Olive Press: “Although there is anecdotal evidence of increasing numbers of expatriates going back, the Malaga consulate certainly has not seen a reduction in its workload.
“It is difficult to get a clear conclusion from a survey of just 250 people, when there are an estimated one million Britons living in Spain.
“I could ask 250 people and get a different result every time.”
He is not alone in failing to see conclusive proof that the expatriate tide has finally turned.
Certainly in Mijas Costa it appears that Britons are preparing to ride out the storm, rather then walk away from their Spanish lives.
The Olive Press found few people actively considering going back.
As photographer Paul O’Connell, based in Calahonda, explains: “Expatriates would be lying if they said they had never thought about going back.
“We all do from time to time, but that is definitely not to say that we want to do it.
“I would say that it would take a catastrophic situation for many to actually pack their bags and leave.”
Anette Skou, boss of Mijas town hall’s Foreigner’s Department confirmed this view. “Deep down, expatriates would prefer to stay and endure the crisis then go back to the UK.” she says.
Her department had a total of 15,000 meetings with Britons last year alone.
She added: “Many people talk about the crisis, but they insist they simply have to save money by going out less instead.”
Even more revealing is a survey conducted by Almeria-based journalist Lennox Napier on behalf of the Olive Press this week.
Talking to just under 200 people in the town of Albox, where a string of recent demolitions have been announced, the figures were certainly eye-opening.
An overwhelming majority of people – 78.4 per cent – said they were in fact quite happy here and were not thinking of going home.
Posing the question “Do you want to go home?” on the website www.arboleas.com, a total of 152 said they were “quite happy here, muchas gracias”.
Indeed, only 21.6 per cent of those that replied said they wanted to return to the UK.
“I think the Moneycorp figures – initially reported in the Daily Telegraph – are ‘unlikely’ when applied to most of Spain,” says Napier.
“In fact, the final paragraph of the original Telegraph story rather suggests that the whole article was more of an ‘advertorial’ for Moneycorp than a hard-hitting article. Shame on the Telegraph for that!”
An even better footnote perhaps, comes from estate agent Zoe Males, of Olvera Properties, who reveals that a couple of her clients who returned home last year have recently come back to Spain.
“I had some clients who went back to the UK last year but they hated the weather, politics and the extortionate prices,” explains estate agent Males.
“They started asking themselves what they came back for in the first place.
“They wanted to spend time with their family, but with all the hustle and bustle of UK life, they barely got to see them anyway.
“They soon ended up coming back out.”