About Us

Contact Us





First Chapterss


3000 years of tourism and still the room isn’t ready ...
Sam North on the past and future of Spanish tourism

Sometime in 1100 BC the Phoenicians sailed their tiny ships to Spain, seeking metals. But as there were no decent hotels, they did not stay. The first major tourists were Carthaginians who colonized the land perhaps as far back as 500 BC. Then around 2200 years ago the Romans discovered Spain. They liked what they saw so much they kept the whole country. All 194,898 square miles (504,784 square kilometers). Six centuries of Roman colonization and government followed. During this time most of the Spanish cities were founded, and the population may have reached nearly 9 million. They built towns, roads, ports and fashioned the landscape to provide them with wine and food that they needed back in Rome and elsewhere. They stayed so long, many of them began to think of themselves as natives, some, like Hadrian went onto to great things in a damp little corner of the world. Others like Trajan became legend. They also built arenas, where for entertainment you could watch all the people you didn’t like (such as Christians) be killed and then watch the killers be killed in turn. Mass culling was a major bloodsport, but although this kind of one way tourism was not sustainable, nevertheless they had a good crack at it. The Romans also enforced their will on the land in the shape of popular art, ceramics, fashion and a whole philosophy of life.

In the 5th century AD as the Romans declined in influence Spain had a new set of tourists visit and now began 300 years of subjection to Teutonic tribes. Spain was invaded by the Suevi, Alans, and Vandals. In AD 415 Rome sent the Visigoths, another Teutonic tribe, to regain Spain for the empire. The Visigoths defeated the invaders, but some Vandals reached Andalusia, giving their name Vandalusia to the region. The Visigoths ruled Spain from 415 to 711. Spain at this time produced almost all the copper mined in the Europe. Spain could have considered itself immune from invasion given the mountains in the north, the jagged and often snowcapped Pyrenees, some 270 miles long, should have functioned most effectively as a barrier. What it actually did was cut Spain off from new cultural and economic influences. Nor could it save them from invasion from the south. In the 11th century Spain was again invaded by the Moors from Africa and they stayed. The Moors built upon the foundations the Romans left behind and fashioned a more modern Spain and new practices in agriculture. Unlike the Romans and German Visigoths they were quite tolerant of the different races and religions. The Moors were responsible for Hispano-Moresque structures:

Córdoba's Great Mosque (began in the 8th century, the Alcázar at Seville (14th century), and the Alhambra at Granada (14th-15th century). Mozarabic architectural styles such as the Church of San Miguel de Escalada near León (10th century) and the Hermitage of San Baudílio de Barlanga near Burgos (11th century) are hugely influential and this led to the Mudejar style -a blending of the Moorish and Gothic for Christian and Jewish patrons. Notable examples of this style are in Toledo - a 13th-century synagogue, now the church of Santa María la Blanca, and the 14th-century Synagogue del Tránsito, now Santa Maria del Tránsito.

But all good vacations come to an end and the Moors left at Christian knifepoint some four hundred years after they arrived. In 1469 the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile united most of Spain against them and the final blow at Moorish power in Spain was the conquest of Granada in 1492. However they had given Spain a heritage that ensures its life as a tourist mecca and left a genetic imprint that persists to this day.

The next invasion of Spain began sometime in the early 1960’s with the advent of cheap air and car travel and has continued to escalate year on year. (One can now fly to Jerez for fifty pounds with Buzz for example). Now 50 million Europeans descend upon Spain every year to eat, drink, tan, dance and copulate. They bring a lot of money with them and consume a great deal of food and precious water. These invasions are fed by airports, ships, trains and the average invader stays two weeks. Does this affect the Spanish population? Yes, Does it impact upon their environment, of course, does it have a lasting effect, absolutely.

Spain is overwhelmingly urban, with 76 percent of its people living in towns and cities.The administrative district of Madrid is home for nearly 5 million, with around 1,550 persons per square mile, while the density for Spain as a whole is 199 per square mile.

According to the Guardian newspaper May 12th 'Southern Spain and the Balearic islands are getting drier every year as ancient springs and underwater aquifers dry up. Benidorms water table is now so low much of its water is piped in from 300 miles away. A tourist in Spain uses 880 litres of water a day compared to 250 litres for a local .' More than 10 million people visit Majorca each year.

Recently a survey placed 375,000 Britons and almost the same figure of Germans living in clusters around the southern coastal Spain resorts. Over one million non-Spanish people own homes there (according to the Associations of Foreign Propoerty Onwners). Spain's longest coastline stretches for 1,700 miles along the Mediterranean Sea from the eastern end of the Pyrenees mountain chain to the Strait of Gibraltar. The incomers usually live in townships specially built for them and have little contact with the locals other than by buying food and services. This does provide income for Spain and is relatively benign (although the Basques might disagree with this point).

However in contrast to this inward investment and settlement is the yearly onslaught of tourists. Five million from the UK alone. This invasion creates surges of demand, probably distorts the Spanish economy and certainly places strains upon resources such as clean fresh water.
Morally, the invasion in Ibiza and Mallorca with their orgies of sex, dance and drug consumption must impact in a negative way upon the young of Spain, but then again there is a rhythm to it. In summer the hordes come and cavort on the beaches, in the winter the silver surfers arrive to escape the cruel northern winters. Spain is learning to live with this, however uncomfortable this might be. However this may distort property prices and prevent lower paid Spanish natives from owning their own home. (The same phenonema is happening in Scotland, Wales and places like Cornwall in the UK.)

Actually there is an anomaly occurring this year in Spain and property prices are rising faster than ever before due to hot money. The upcoming conversion to the Euro means that people are having to spend the ‘hot’ undeclared money they have hidden in their mattresses. The best way to do that is investing in property. So a boom this year may turn into bust next.

One of the problems of an industry built on summer tourism is that the resorts and all the buildings remain all year around. Spain is trying to offer itself as this winter refuge, but anyone who has been there in winter will know that very little is actually open and this would need to be addressed. Another minus is that when the summer tourists depart, they leave their mess behind and do not underestimate the problems Spain now has with their own young and drugs or Aids and the summer crime problems. (If some of these tourists knew just how harsh a Spanish jail was they might think twice before going crazy).

So is this mass invasion of Spain sustainable? For the moment they like the jobs and investment it brings, but anyone who has visited Spain from April through October will know just how densely packed it is. Seville is so crowded there are queues for restaurants and the Cathedral, there are few spare hotel rooms. So it begs the question how does Spain know when it is full?
Can tourists be managed like water and be turned away from places like Seville and diverted to Toledo or Jerez? If the numbers grow further, and water supplies are claimed by the growing industrial base of Spain, how can this be balanced with Spain’s vacation image and needs. Can the concept of sustainable tourism with a number like 50 million visitors to the country ever be sustainable? What would the alternatives be for Spain if people no longer came? (something the ETA separatists would like to see or at least like to use as a threat to those that disagree with them and their desires for a distinct nation and Basque language).

A country with 3000 years of tourism behind it must consider its future. Spain is a bit like an older woman on the game. She finds it too lucrative to give it up but the ravages of time and too many customers are ruining her face. Spain needs to plan now. Not to deny tourists access to the sun and beaches, but to preserve the best of the country for generators to come and this needs to be discussed as a matter of urgency as yet more airports open up to receive visitors.

© Sam North 2001

< Back to Index
< About the Author
< Reply to this Article