Crushing the Costa del Concrete

The Spanish government is trying to reverse 40 years of breakneck development by buying up seaside land. But is it too late to restore the coastline to its previous beauty?
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The most popular bar on the seafront at Torremolinos advertises itself as "probably the worst Irish pub in the world" and the advance billing does not disappoint. The live music at "The Irish Affair" is folksy and deafening, the Guinness is on keg and the cocktails include a blend of vodka and peach liqueur going under the name of "Sex on the Beach".

Welcome to the Costa del Sol where almost all the restaurants seem to offer egg, sausage and beans - the one notable exception being Burger King.

Few come here to experience local customs or cuisine and younger holidaymakers prefer trendier resorts. But, at midnight, the seafront is thronging with families from Britain, Germany and eastern Europe, mingling with Spaniards who own second homes here.

The crowds here conceal the truth: this is the heart of a holiday business whose rotten health is causing growing alarm in Spain. After 40 years of breakneck development, vast stretches of the Spanish coast have been concreted over, including three-fifths of the Andalusian seafront - destroying the environment and deterring visitors. So concerned is the government in Madrid that it wants to buy seaside land itself to stop developers getting their hands on it.

Along the Costa del Sol, of course, there is nothing much to buy. The hill above The Irish Affair is built on, as is every inch of the promenade with cafés and cheap shops on the front and apartment blocks behind. Huge, multistorey hotels tower over the seafront at Torremolinos or Fuengirola.

Drive from Torremolinos to Marbella and the picture is of Los Angeles-style urban sprawl. Tracts of land with an uninspiring view over the dual carriageway are being developed into luxury housing complexes.

The precise length of this stretch of concreted land depends on who you talk to; some say there is 56km (35 miles) of continuous urbanisation but environmental campaigners say that, to all intents and purposes, 200km has been developed.

What is agreed is that orgy of building, based on an assumption of continuous expansion, has come at a cost. Maria Jose Caballero, Oceans campaigner for Greenpeace, says the result is like "Hong Kong, with big towers and really small beaches with everybody living in big blocks." Though she welcomes the government's idea of buying back land, Ms Cavallero believes this idea will not begin to tackle the scale of the problem.

In a street café in Malaga, Peter Manschot a campaigner from the local environmental group Ecologistas en Accion, expands on the same theme: " Seventy per cent of the Costa del Sol is being destroyed, covered with concrete and asphalt. There are Irish pubs, English pubs and German restaurants. This is not like being in Spain. It is made for someone who wants to be abroad but with the facilities of their country".

For some, the advantages of sun and a cheap holiday remain attractive. In a supermarket in Fuengirola, a litre of vodka sells for €5.95 (£4); 1,200 Benson & Hedges, for €171, come with a free bottle of Grants scotch.

But the tourist business seems to have bitten the hand that once fed it so generously. As Mr Manschot puts it bluntly: "Many people come once and then make sure they do not come again - because it is really horrible".

A few miles down the road in Fuengirola, Christine Kayes-Hall from Christchurch in Dorset bears out that verdict. From the beach, the view is of pure, blue ocean and a distant horizon. But turn around and you see a crowded beach, a concrete seafront and at least three high-rise hotels. For two people, Ms Kayes-Hall's one-week holiday cost a total of just £170 including flights and bed and breakfast. But she still wonders whether she wouldn't have done better going to the beach in Bournemouth.

"It is very, very overdeveloped," she says, "something like Benidorm 20 years ago. It's a concrete jungle. There is building congestion right to the water's edge. There is also a lot of litter. We were wondering why we left our local beach in Bournemouth. I would not rush back here."

Campaigners accuse Spain of slowly suffocating its coastline in concrete and asphalt. According to the Spanish National Institute of Geography, 59 per cent of the Andalusian coast has been built upon.

In theory, the 1988 Shores Act protects the coastline from excessive exploitation. In practice it is widely flouted and there are about 4,000 proceedings for breaches of development law.

A recent Greenpeace report described legal guidelines as worthless. Local authorities depend on construction for their income through taxes and fees from building work, giving them an in-built incentive to ignore restrictions. Homeowners can expect nothing worse than a small fine for occupying an illegal building.

Greenpeace believes almost 45,000 houses have been constructed illegally (including 20,000 in Marbella alone), that 34 per cent of the first kilometre of Spain's Mediterranean coast is built up and, around Malaga, that rises to above 50 per cent.

Its report argues: "Building in the coastal strip goes on at an unstoppable rate. Practically exhausted around the coast of Malaga (in Fuengirola or Torremolinos 100 per cent of its land has been developed), the urban developments transfer to the coasts of Granada, Almeria, Cadiz and Huelva".

All this is happening despite tourists' growing reservations about the deteriorating environment. Visits between June and September are declining: down by five million tourists between 2002 and 2004. Environmentalists say hotel occupation rates on the Costa del Sol are at 69.3 per cent, the lowest since 2000. But that has not stopped 29 new projects which will add 2,681 hotel rooms to the more than 90,000 already existing in that stretch of the Malaga coast.

The booming property market has prompted thousands to pile in to invest in second homes. In 2003, 1.7 million Spanish homes were owned by foreigners, mostly from the EU (whose citizens are free to buy) including 40,000 from Britain. But, with low, eurozone interest rates, Spaniards have been gripped by the house-buying bug too.

All that has brought acute environmental problems. Development in the wrong locations has destroyed beaches; in Malaga's beach area alone, 150,000 cubic metres of sand are being added artificially.

With much of the property market saturated, the developers are building golf courses. Already there are 293 in Spain and they are springing up at the rate of 21 new courses a year, suggesting there will be a total of 500 in a decade's time. Since one golf course requires the same amount of water as a town of 15,000 people, it will inevitably worsen an acute water crisis.

Meanwhile, unplanned urban growth has caused pollution problems. In July 2004, the European Commission said that almost 200 Spanish municipalities did not respect guidelines on urban sewage for towns of more than 15,000 inhabitants.

There is now a glut of holiday homes. Robert Barnhardt arrived in Spain from Norfolk in 1984 and his estate agency, called Multiservice, sits on a corner of Fuengirola's main street.

"We used to have people queuing up to rent apartments in August - you could charge any rent you wanted," says Mr Barnhardt leaning back in his chair.

"Now there is so much rental property they can pick and choose." An orgy of construction was driven by instant profits as property speculation ran out of control. Some believe that large amounts of money were being laundered; the area is, after all, not nicknamed the "Costa del Crime" for nothing. Suspicions increased recently after a police anti-mafia swoop codenamed Ballena Blanca (white whale).

In any event, prices have doubled since 1998, Mr Barnhardt says. At the peak of the market, contracts were exchanged three times on one block - with healthy profits each time - before it was even built. Now, he says, new property is "ludicrously expensive" and a two-three bedroom apartment will set a buyer back €180,000- €230,000. The cheapest flat on the market, a 36 sq metre studio, costs €99,000 and, says Mr Barnhardt, "it is nigh-on impossible for a young Spanish couple to get on to the property ladder". While thousands of holiday homes remain empty for most of the year many Spaniards are still living with their parents well into their thirties.

How, in a country the size of Spain, has the situation come about? Mr Barnhardt answers with one word: "Greed".

Nor is it likely to stop here. Even if this stretch of land is developed to near-exhaustion, much of the country's coastline remains an inviting prospect to developers. Mr Barnhardt says: "There are still a lot of areas of Spain were you can buy much cheaper than here. Around Cadiz they will jump on the bandwagon. It will be the same as here." Ninety minutes drive south-west towards Cadiz, lies the tiny town of Zahara de los Atunes which, in winter, is home to no more than 1,200 people. In that area, near the Cape of Trafalgar, many tracts of land are either protected as national parks or by being in a military zone.

As a result, the land is covered with pines and Mediterranean brushwood and the ecosystem supports chameleon, yellow-footed gull, egret, grey herons and flamingoes. Fishermen catch tuna by traditional methods but employment prospects are poor so tourism presents a potential source of income.

The town already has five, small, hotels though visitors are mainly Spanish; on one day last week just 32 foreigners were staying in Zahara de los Atunes, six of whom were British.

From here towards the next town, Barbate, stretches 10km of virgin, sandy, beach behind which stands empty brushwood. But look in the other direction and there is the familiar site of the ubiquitous, whitewashed, purpose-built developments so common on the Costa del Sol.

Inma Mera-Trivino, the town's tourist officer, explains the dilemma: " There is good and bad with tourism. The tourists bring money for people who live here and we need work." In one estate agency, Nuestra Zahara, they are asking €240,000 for a two-bedroom flat and €2m for a large villa with pool. Prices are high because construction in the natural park is not permitted, but some restrictions may be relaxed in 2006. "For now the building has stopped," says one of the staff.