THIS year’s return to pre-pandemic levels of tourism has most expats in Spain breathing a sigh of relief. 

Tourism is, after all, the economic lifeblood of the costas and many other touristic regions of Spain, along with agriculture.

However, I believe the two-year pause in visitor numbers shone an important bright light on the other side of tourist-focused economics: that of over-development.

‘Over-tourism’ is the current idiom, with an academic in London recently defining its difference from ‘mass tourism’.

“Over-tourism is more likely to affect destinations that weren’t necessarily designed for tourism: Venice, Dubrovnik, Barcelona,” explained Dr Ross Bennett-Cook.

“Then there are places like Benidorm and Magaluf that receive masses of visitors, but because they were built for tourism, they are prepared for it.”

This certainly makes sense: tourism needs to be planned and must not be seen as a short-term ‘cash cow’. 

Tourism-planning requires proper investment in quality infrastructure that will endure – not the too-often seen classic smash-and-grab approach.

The likes of Benidorm and Magaluf were built to absorb mass tourism, but on the Costa del Sol we are usually playing catch up. Here, we continually let economic development trump considerations for the environment and infrastructure.

INFRASTRUCTURE AND SUSTAINABILITY

Take the issue of water. We had warnings as far back as the early 1990s about supply problems.

It led to Marbella opening a desalination plant in 1997, when the resort had a population of just under 100,000 during low season.

That low season population has since grown by 50% to 150,000 people, while the number of tourists who visit each year has doubled since 2000.

Desalination Plant Malaga Ayuntamiento
Desalination plant. Ayto.

The demand on freshwater infrastructure – along with other infrastructure, such as roads – has therefore grown enormously, but little has been done to keep up. 

Incredibly, the entire Costa del Sol – which has seen its overall population double in the last 10 years – still only has the Marbella desalination plant.

There is work being done to double the capacity of this plant by 2024, but it is too little, too late. 

And yes, while they have announced the building of a new desalination plant at an undisclosed location on the coast, the price tag is enormous at €200 million.

Meanwhile, Estepona, which also claims to focus on sustainability, has announced a €20 million desalination plant, but that will take three years to open!

Yes, three years, after a year of critically low rainfall and supply (reservoirs at around 30% capacity in Malaga province) at the worst level in history.

Of course, it is good that action is being taken, but why wasn’t this planned well in advance? 

It has long been known that tourism and year-round population was growing at a rapid pace, so why weren’t the town halls keeping up before.

GREEN SPACES AND URBAN PLANNING

The planning problems also apply to many other aspects of development, from traffic to green spaces. 

Urban planning on the Costa del Sol revolves far too much around golf courses as the only solution to green spaces.

Other green spaces amount to small, insignificant parks within the resorts. 

Any available land is usually allocated for more housing development. 

And when tree planting happens, it is too often reserved for non-native trees, such as palm trees. This highlights the region as a tropical paradise but poses a whole series of ecological problems.

This isn’t just about our cities and towns looking pretty, though that is a good thing. 

More trees means less air pollution and fewer ‘excess deaths’. 

Unfortunately, Malaga isn’t doing well, according to both the European Union and the WHO’s criteria for green spaces.

With a few exceptions, the larger towns in the province have failed their environmental duty. Only Marbella (with 29.7 square metres of green zone per resident), Antequera, (29.2) and Vélez-Malaga (19.09) come above the UN’s recommended 15 square metres per head ratio.

Taking the WHO recommendation of 10 square metres, Estepona just scrapes in with 11, but it isn’t clear how much of this is urban green space or the surrounding golf courses.

I should also note that in Mijas the huge Gran Parque of the Costa del Sol is set to have 20,000 plants and trees over its 35 hectares and will be one of the largest parks in Andalucia.

So, I don’t want to suggest that everyone is blind to the problem or just sitting on their hands. It’s not the case. But is it enough?

INFRASTRUCTURE AND DEVELOPMENT

Anyone who has driven to Puerto Banus using either the San Pedro or Marbella tunnels can attest to how infrastructure is not keeping up with development. 

The traffic jams start at before 9am and often go on well into the early evening. There is a similar problem heading towards Benalmadena from Malaga city and various other bottlenecks.

The same goes for the architectural styles built for the influx of new investors. 

Infrastructure has not kept up with development

Yes, there is a lot of talk about energy efficiency rules for new builds, including solar energy, heat pumps and thermal insulation.

However, most modern designs tend to use vast panels of untreated glass windows unprotected by shade negating all the energy efficiency savings, as these buildings require continuous air conditioning to make them liveable.

The sensible approach would be to demand solar-controlling glass, which significantly reduces energy consumption.

APPROACHING OVERDEVELOPMENT AND PLANNING

One suggestion for approaching the problem of over-development is to set up special quangos or councils charged with focusing on the intersection between tourism and care for the destination.

They would, in turn, advise local town halls and businesses on how to act.

“They work best if they’re made up of equal parts government, private sector and civil society,’ explains Jonathan Tourtellot of the Destination Stewardship Centre.

The ‘three-legged’ approach means it can survive changes in government. “We have seen many good intentions get thrown out when the government changes,’ he says.

Perhaps it is time for a similar approach on the Costa del Sol to ensure that we are doing what is necessary to keep the region beautiful, attractive and sustainable over the long term.

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