Valdevaqueros is one of the last remaining unspoiled beaches in southern Spain, where kites hauling surfers along the waves dot the sky over golden sands buttressed by one of the country’s few shifting sand dunes.
Currently, the beach has little more than an access road lined with camper vans from Germany, France, Italy and Britain which disgorge windsurfers and kitesurfers lured by the area’s strong winds.
For decades, it has been a world apart from the concrete-lined beaches of Torremolinos and Marbella along the coast, yet on May 29, the local council in Tarifa, Andalusia, approved plans to build a tourist complex right next to the beach, with 1,400 hotel rooms and 350 apartments.
Environmental and conservation groups have protested that the project will harm the habitats of protected species, but for most councilors, the issue is simple: jobs. In this town of 18,000 inhabitants, 2,600 are out of work, as Spain faces its worst economic crisis in at least half a century, and one that has cast doubt on the future of the euro.
“Traditional sources of income such as fishing are dying out, now that fleets are being dismantled and fish stocks are depleted, so tourism is the only way out, as long as it is sustainable,” said Sebastian Galindo, a councilor from the Socialist Party, which is in opposition in Tarifa, but voted with the governing People’s Party to give the project the green light.
Tarifa Mayor Juan Andres Gil declined to comment on the project, but Galindo said it complies with environmental standards. The complex would be 800m from the coast, comfortably beyond the minimum of 200m stipulated in the landmark 1988 Coastal Law, drawn up to prevent more ugly developments that have blighted much of Spain’s coastline when mass tourism first descended on its shores in the 1960s and 1970s.
The site is also sandwiched between the Estrecho and Alcornocales national parks, but encroaches on neither, Galindo said.
He vowed to check developments closely, but admitted that the project may not get off the drawing board “in the current economic climate.”
Just meters from the corner cafe where Galindo spoke, idle cranes loom over blocks of apartments that have lain unfinished or empty since a property bubble burst in 2008, swiftly turning Spain from the eurozone’s fastest-growing economy into one that may soon need a European bailout to help rescue its parlous public finances.
Opponents of the complex say the last thing anyone needs is more housing in a country that already has a million empty homes, although the central government last week proposed a sell-off by granting non-Spaniards residency permits in return for buying property worth at least 160,000 euros (US$206,700).
The Socialist opposition in Madrid slammed the proposal and Galindo said it discriminated against migrant workers who flocked to Spain during the boom years, many of them from Morocco, whose coastline is just 14km away and can be seen from Tarifa.
“It favors moneyed classes rather than those who came here to help Spain get ahead,” he said.
Surfers such as Henning Mayer fear that new buildings in Valdevaqueros would sap the strength of the famous local Levant wind, but fail to lure traditional package holidaymakers.
“It’s not really a family spot. Just wait until they see what a Levant is like,” said Mayer, who has regularly made the journey from Augsburg in Germany for 20 years. “Ten years ago they said they would build a new highway here. It didn’t happen, so I think it will be impossible to build new hotels.”