food / travel

Can Spain’s Tourism Be More Than Just “Sol Y Playa”?

Branch of Centre Pompidou in Malaga, Spain
Branch of Centre Pompidou in Malaga, Spain
Gaëlle Lucas

MALAGA â€" There's a classic children's song in France that says a lot about how the world sees Spain. "Dans mon pays d'Espagne, olé! Y" a un soleil comme ça!" (In Spain, my country, olé! There's a sun like this). The song also touches on things like bullfighting, the sea, flamenco dancing â€" all the Spanish clichés.

While there is certainly more to Spain than "sol y playa" (sun and beach) â€" and bulls and flamenco, for that matter â€" it's also true that those particular ingredients have served the southern European country well, helping it take off in the 1960s as a popular mass tourism destination.

More than a half-century later, Torremolinos, a beach resort on the Costa del Sol, where it all started, is still jam packed with holiday goers. Dozens of tourists wearing shorts and flip-flops relax on café terraces or meander down to the beach along steep and narrow streets lined with cheap restaurants and souvenir shops. Pop music blares all around.

But in Málaga’s historic center, 30 minutes away by train, Annette and her two adolescent children are expanding their horizons beyond the busy beach scene. "We're also here for the culture," the Swedish mother says. The teenagers take turns photographing each other next to a metal statue of Pablo Picasso, who seems to be enjoying the sea breeze outside his childhood home.

José María Luna, head of the Picasso Foundation, which operates several area museums, says the city made a conscious decision, starting in the 2000s, to take advantage of its historic link to the world famous painter. Picasso was born in Málaga in 1881. The idea was to bring tourism traffic into the city center, which up to that point was mostly just a place where people worked.

"On weekends and in the summer, things were at a standstill," Francisco Moro, director of the four-star hotel MS Maestranza Málaga, recalls. "The town was dark.” At that time, the only hotel customers, he says, "were there for business."

Thanks to this bet on culture, the city has become a destination unto itself â€" with a 127% increase in visitors in just 10 years, according to José María Luna.

Málaga now boasts 36 museums, including the Picasso Museum and the Contemporary Art Center, which opened in 2003, and branches of the Pompidou Center (France) and St. Petersburg Art Museum (Russia), which opened earlier this year. It also restored its historical center and modernized the port, which used to be closed but is now a favored promenade area. Cruise ships drop their anchors there to disembark hordes of vacationers, some of whom have already begun visiting the nearby “Cubo,” the glass and steel cubic structure that serves as headquarter for the Málaga Pompidou Center.

Victim of its own success?

Málaga and Torremolinos may be a study in contrasts, but they're both, of course, trying to bank on the same industry, tourism, which directly and indirectly generates more than 15% of Spain's GDP, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

The sector is doing particularly well right now as the country rebounds from its deep economic crisis. Tourism revenues increased by 2.9% in 2014, thanks in large part to a 7% rise in the number of foreign visitors. More than 65 million people traveled to Spain last year, making it the third most visited country in the world after France and the United States.

Industry experts say, nevertheless, that Spain ought to revisit its particular tourism model and adapt to new trends. European tourists, according to Josep Francesc Valls, the former director of the tourism management center of the Esade Business School, are spending less time at the beach these days and taking more off-season trips. Visitors from emerging countries such as China, Brazil or Russia also want more out of their vacations that just sunbathing, he argues.

Unfortunately, says Valls, Spain has been slow to react so far. “The problem," he says, "is that the success of "sol y playa" and the fact that Spain is traditionally a backup destination, especially since 9/11 or the 2011 Arab Spring, have prevented us from repositioning ourselves and develop alternative products."

Beginning to branch out

Málaga's recent efforts, in this sense, are an encouraging sign. To the “sol y playa” of the Costa del Sol, the city added culture and gastronomy. Bilbao, a former industrial town of the Basque Country, underwent a similar transformation, staring in the late 1990s with the opening of a branch of the Guggenheim museum. The building's unusual structure, designed by the architect Frank Gehry, attracted more than a million visitors in 2014.

There are other changes afoot as well. Urban tourism, for example, is booming in Spain, especially in historically rich places like Barcelona, Santiago de Compostela, Segovia and Cuenca. The country also has a competitive advantage in terms of infrastructure, with a large number of airports, a high-speed train and highways that enable traveling quite easily from one town to another in the country.

Gastronomy is another major asset, as Spain is a breeding ground for starred chefs. France had better watch out, especially as “the prices in starred restaurants are between 30% and 40% lower in Spain," says Valls. The same goes for city hotels.

"Sol y playa," nevertheless, still makes up the lion's share (70%) of Spain's tourism industry. “With Málaga and its museums, we haven’t transformed our model, we completed it,” says Manuel Ruiz, president of the regional nightlife entrepreneurs association. Or as Francisco Moro puts it: “Málaga and the Costa del Sol take mutual advantage of each other.”

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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