Pedro Zaragoza: Developer of high-rise Benidorm

Pedro Zaragoza invented Benidorm as Europe's first mass tourist resort, and faced excommunication from the Catholic Church for introducing the bikini to Spanish beaches. But he won Francisco Franco's blessing, and in the depths of the dictatorship, this engaging operator arguably brought more sunshine and fun into the lives of ordinary folk than anyone else in Spain.

Convinced that workers had as much right as the rich to a holiday in the sun, Zaragoza developed this tiny fishing village with its three-mile stretch of golden sand into Spain's – possibly Europe's – biggest seaside resort, favourite destination for visitors from the north. Pallid northerners suffering harsh winters and cloudy skies barely needed persuading to head south for year-round sunshine.

Young Pedro Zaragoza had little formal education – a deficiency he corrected later in life – but he had an astute brain and could sell an idea: in a public-relations masterstroke he flew to snowy Helsinki one April, bearing a flowering branch of Mediterranean almond blossom. He made friends with some reindeer hunters from Lapland, and took them from airport to airport across Europe with a placard explaining in Spanish and English that the family took their holidays in Benidorm.

Over 17 years, as mayor of his home town, Zaragoza nurtured his vision, and created a mighty tourism machine visited by five million holidaymakers every year, more than half of them northern Europeans, mostly British.

Zaragoza vigorously defended the high-rise concrete jungle that looms over Benidorm's manicured twin-crescent seafront. He was proud of it; he planned it, and took advice from Spain's guru of maritime urban planning Oriol Bohigas, the architect of modern Barcelona.

"If you build low, you occupy all the space and have a long walk to the beach. If you build high, you can face the sea, and leave room for gardens, pools and tennis courts," Zaragoza explained when I interviewed him some years back. He illustrated his argument with a bottle of wine ("from my wife's bodega"), lying it on first its side, then upright, finally balancing it on its top. When he was sure I had grasped his point that building high frees space and puts you nearer the main attraction, he opened the bottle.

His family were seafarers, and as a young man he went to Barcelona to study nautical matters. But poverty brought him home to work as a travelling salesman, a job he left to work as a porter at Madrid's old Delicias rail terminal, now the railway museum. He later worked in a minerals factory, which sent him to the phosphate mines of Zarza la Mayor, near Cáceres in the western region of Extremadura. He became a driller's assistant, then a miner-driller, and finally manager of the company.

He returned to Benidorm when his father died, and became director of the local branch of a regional savings bank. His ambition and drive won the approval of the promotions manager of the Confederation of Spanish Savings Banks in Madrid, with the result that Franco's politicians appointed Zaragoza mayor of Benidorm. He was 28.

In 1952, he noted prevailing fashions and allowed the bikini to be worn on the beach. Further, he issued a decree forbidding anyone from insulting a woman who sported the daring two-piece swimwear. "If we wanted to attract visitors from outside, we had to move with the times." The church was outraged at the affront to Catholic modesty, and threatened to excommunicate him. So in a typically theatrical flourish, Zaragoza decided to put his case directly to Franco.

"I got on my Vespa and drove to Madrid," he recalled. "I set off before dawn and I arrived in the hot afternoon. I'd brought a clean shirt to change into, but no clean trousers. So I met the generalissimo with my trousers all stained with motor oil from my bike." Franco was charmed, and gave him the green light: the bikini survived and thrived, and the two families became friends and visited each other.

Zaragoza laid out his visionary design for Benidorm in Spain's first General Plan for Urban Organisation of 1956. He proudly presented visitors with facsimile copies of this document, which included grainy photos of a pristine shoreline.

When he stepped down as mayor in 1967, Zaragoza became a provincial deputy, president of Alicante's provincial government, and finally the Spanish government's Tourism Director. He chaired the national Tourism Commission for 12 years. But he considered himself more a manager than a politician.

In later life he sought to complete the education he lacked. He took a law degree in the 1970s, specialising in urban development. He graduated in tourism at Alicante University at the age of 82, then completed three courses of a journalism degree at the University of Elche. He was made honorary professor of Tourism at Alicante University, to which he donated his vast personal archive in 2007.

The collection contained not only documents and plans charting Benidorm's historic rise, but extensive correspondence with leaders of the time, including Franco, the Argentine strongman Juan Domingo Perón, Charles de Gaulle and Otto von Habsburg.

Elizabeth Nash

Pedro Zaragoza Orts, tourism promoter and lawyer: born Benidorm, Spain 15 May 1922; Mayor of Benidorm 1950-67; married María Ivars (four children); died Benidorm 1 April 2008.

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