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Belated win for coastal protection in Spain

Irene Banos RuizFebruary 24, 2016

Environmentalists have won a decade-long battle to halt construction of a mega-hotel in one of Spain's largest coastal protected areas. However, the conflict between tourism and conservation is far from over.

Greenpeace campaign against El Algarrobico
El Algarrobico has been for a decade one of the most controversial buildings in SpainImage: picture-alliance/epa/Greenpeace/P. Armestre

It was a clear win for environmentalists when Spain's highest court ruled the construction of a mega-hotel "illegal."

Just 14 meters away from El Algarrobico, a pristine beach of Cabo de Gata in southern Spain, the hotel - with its 21 floors and 411 bedrooms - stands vacant.

Its construction in the province of Almeria was dubbed one of Spain's biggest environmental scandals.

The Spanish Supreme Court recently declared the area environmentally protected and has banned construction. Environmentalists have hailed the decision a great success. But, the victory may have come a bit late.

A decade of confusion

"The countdown for the demolition of the Algarrobico's hotel has finally started," said Andalusian environment minister José Fiscal.

His triumphant announcement comes after years of backtracking and legal ambiguity, with many locals holding the regional government responsible for the whole fiasco.

It all began in the 1980s, when construction of the hotel was first licensed. Then, the coastal area was not protected. But by the time construction began in 2003, that had changed and building was prohibited.

Spanish hotel El Algarrobico in the natural park Cabo de Gata
The hotel is located in a protected area within the natural park, Cabo de GataImage: cc-by-2.0/eltito

It wasn't until 2006 that a local court first ordered an immediate halt to building. But the national environment ministry and the regional government of Andalusia failed to react to the ruling.

Then in 2012, the high court of Andalusia declared the hotel illegal and called for its demolition. But two years later, the court reversed its decision. The hotel was then again legal, and building was free to restart.

Now, 10 years after works were halted, Spain's Supreme Court has finally given the green light for its demolition.

The price of victory

Tearing down the huge edifice will cost an estimated 7 million euros. National and local governments are to split the bill.

There is also the outstanding question of compensation for the hotel's owners - who are demanding around 70 million euros.

Locals feel they, too, have lost out financially.

While environmental groups have long fought the hotel, it has always had a majority of support in the area - mainly for economic reasons.

"Once it was already constructed, it would have been best to make use of it," said Salvador Hernández, mayor of the nearby village of Carboneras.

Hernández argues the hotel would have brought much needed jobs to the village. "Instead, the people - through taxes - will pay for its demolition, and the consequences," he told DW.

Hernández believes the local community has emerged the biggest loser from a debacle that put Carboneras on the map for all the wrong reasons.

"Our village may be outstanding for many reasons, but our image has been destroyed by this scandal," he lamented.

Cabo de Gata natural park, Spain
The natural park Cabo de Gata is the largest coastal protected area in AndalusiaImage: picture-alliance/H. Champollion/akg-images

An uncertain future

And the construction that has loomed over Algarrobico for more than a decade will not disappear overnight.

The demolition is expected to produce around 60,000 cubic meters of waste, of which at least 40,000 cubic meters must be removed and dumped. The remainder is to be used in the area's recovery

Greenpeace at least sees an upside to this logistical challenge.

"The demolition work would bring around 400 new jobs," said Pilar Marcos, head of Greenpeace Spain's coastal campaign.

"98 percent of the materials could be recycled. Moreover, it represents a new opportunity for sustainable tourism."

What the beach will look like once the process is over remains an open question. Whether it will be restored to its natural state - or become the site for new tourism infrastructure - has yet to be decided.

Buildings on the Spanish coast
Massive tourism is visible all along the Spanish coastImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Tourism threatens conservation

According to WWF, tourism is one of the main causes for biodiversity loss in the Mediterranean region. Sea beds, coastal landscapes and marine dynamics are all at risk.

Spain is one of the world's best-loved tourist destinations. In 2014, it was ranked third in the world for numbers of foreign tourists by the United Nations Tourism Organization.

But threats to the environment from tourism are a problem the world over, with Mexico, China, Ecuador, Indonesia and Nepal just a few of countries where vacationers put the landscapes they come to enjoy at risk.