Spanish resort city readies to host Michelle Obama, daughter

The Spanish resort of Marbella, often associated with Arab princes and crime lords, geared up Tuesday to welcome US First Lady Michelle Obama, with authorities eyeing a boost in tourist revenues.

A huge billboard in the Mediterranean city proclaimed "Welcome Obama Family" in the red white and blue colours of the US flag, with Obama and her youngest daughter Sasha, nine, due on Wednesday for a holiday.

"Thank you for choosing Marbella!", the billboard beamed.

The trip was a private mother-daughter holiday with long-time family friends, the White House announced last week, denying Spanish news reports that President Barack Obama, who celebrates his 49th birthday on Wednesday, would join them.

Michelle Obama was also scheduled to meet Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia at their summer palace in the Balearic island of Majorca during her brief stay, the White House said.

She and her daughter were booked in for four days at Marbella's five-star Hotel Villa Padierna, which hoisted a US flag at its entrance to welcome them. Nearby roads were repaved ahead of the visit.

Considered one of Spain's most exclusive hotels, the rates for a room start at 250 euros and rise to 5,000 euros (6,500 dollars) for a villa with a 24-hour butler service and private pool and garden.

An Italian palazzo-style building about five kilometres (three miles) from the coast, the hotel has five restaurants, a spa and three 18-hole golf courses.

Owner Ricardo Arranz said the Obama family had asked for "nothing special" during their stay and said the staff would "respect their privacy."

"It's a relaxing and private visit and we want them to fulfil their wishes," he said last week.

"We must ensure that they can enjoy not only the hotel but the whole coast relatively normally so that visits like this can take place in the future," he said.

The mayor of the nearby city of Malaga, Francisco de la Torre, described Michelle Obama's stay as "very big news" for the region's tourist industry.

Spanish PR firm Oak Power Communication estimates the visit will generate about 50,000 reports on radio and television and in newspapers around the world and provide publicity for the Andalucia region worth around 800 million euros (one billion dollars).

"This is a unique opportunity to promote Marbella and all of Andalucia as a tourist destination," the head of the firm, Maria Asenjo, told the Europa Press news agency.

Public Works Minister Jose Blanco said "the fact that the Obama family has chosen Spain for their holiday is a reason to feel proud, it is positive for Spain, and it also reflects that Spain plays a role in the world that is recognised."

But Juan Luis Rascon, a socialist lawmaker from the Andalucian city of Cordoba, condemned the hype over the visit, saying on his personal webpage that Spaniards need to be "more natural and behave less like hicks."

"Idolatry and servility do not sit well with a dignified democracy," he said.

Marbella, where Arab royals maintain vast properties, lies on what the British press has dubbed the "Costa del Crime" because of the large number of fugitives reputedly hiding out there.

In 2006 it was rocked by a real estate corruption scandal that led to the dissolution of the town council.

The city's sleazy reputation began in the 1990s with the election of mayor as Jesus Gil, who transformed it into a glitzy resort through massive property speculation during his 15-year term.

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