Spain to build resort on its last wild beaches | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 13.05.2014
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Spain to build resort on its last wild beaches

There's one pristine beach near Spain's southern tip that's consistently been voted among Europe's top ten beaches, mainly because it's been spared from the country's rampant commercial development - until now.

During Spain's decades-long construction boom, high-rise hotels and villas popped up along the country's Mediterranean coast in droves, ruining what was once a pristine shoreline. Many of those buildings are now empty, chilling reminders of Spain's economic crash.

But one beach at Spain's southern tip has long been saved from that wanton construction, until now.

Valdevaqueros beach, near the Straits of Gibraltar, is one of the windiest places in the world. It lays at Spain's southern tip in the town of Tarifa, just west of where the Rock of Gibraltar juts out toward the mountains of Morocco, across the Mediterranean. That geography creates a wind tunnel that swishes through Valdevaqueros constantly creating the ideal conditions for migratory birds, but not beach-goers.

"It's the number one spot in Europe for migratory birds, raptors, gliders and storks," said Paloma Lopez, a local park ranger. "They're the kinds of birds that need thermal wind currents to fly."

Windsurfers at Valdevaqueros beach

The number of thrill-seeking tourists has been rising rapidly in Tarifa in recent years

New guests

The wind saved Valdevaqueros from overdevelopment. That is, until windsurfers and kite surfers discovered it.

"It's great on the water," says Chris Ziaja, a windsurf instructor who's previously lived in Hawaii and Mauritius, and moved to Tarifa five years ago. "The spot itself is amazing. I think it's hard to compete with Tarifa."

And the wind isn't the only reason why tourism numbers are rising.

"If you go further out, there's a reef," Ziaja says. "There's a whale watching tour, and they go from here to the Moroccan side. I know a lot of birdwatchers also come here to do tours and camp out."

To accommodate all the sports enthusiasts and adventure tourists, Tarifa authorities have recently approved plans to build 1,400 hotel rooms and 350 apartments right next to the Valdevaqueros beach.

"It's difficult to strike a balance between conservation and economic development," says Juan Andres Gil Garcia, Tarifa's mayor.

"We want to conserve this natural paradise," he adds. "But when you live here, you see the problem. We desperately need those jobs."

The construction project will bring at least 1,000 new jobs to Tarifa, where the unemployment rate is pushing 40-percent, according to Garcia.

Juan Andres Gil García

Tarifa mayor Juan Andres Gil Garcia says that his town needs the jobs that a new hotel would bring

New hotel, new opportunities

In Tarifa's open-air market, fishmongers sell the morning's fresh catch and locals fill their canvas bags with fresh vegetables. Residents chat about the pending construction on Valdevaqueros Beach. Everyone here seems to be in agreement.

"I think it's great," says Carmen Moreno Blanco, who sells socks from her kiosk. "It will bring more work for us locals."

If the development goes ahead, the hotel rooms would be 700 meters from the shoreline, on the other side of a dirt road that winds through Valdevaqueros' sand dunes. The mayor says it'll be an eco-friendly design, but no plans have yet been made public.

"Actually I don't care how they build it! Even if it's the most sustainable hotel in Europe, it shouldn't be there," said environmental biologist Aitor Galan, who has helped gather nearly 100-thousand signatures on a petition to block the project.

Antonio Munoz, president of the local branch of the environmental group, Ecologists in Action, agrees. He says that the planned Valdevaqueros development is just part of an ongoing trend in Spain to destroy the country's natural assets. "I've been an ecologist and activist for 27 years and during that time, I've seen Spain reclassify protected natural parks, one by one, into land for development."

Activists have now appealed to the European Union to halt the project to save the natural wildlife area here. Opposition lawmakers in Tarifa, for their part, have floated an alternative: a hotel in Tarifa's city center instead, maybe even with free bikes to ride out to Valdevaqueros beach.

Protest signs in the offices of Ecologists in Action

Ecologists in Action are campaigning to save Valdevaqueros from major tourism development

Temporary reprieve?

Munoz and his supporters have just won a small reprieve however. The regional government of Andalusia has temporarily frozen plans for any new waterfront development, including Valdevaqueros, as it sorts through the mess of empty, half-built projects left over from the housing bubble.

Dozens of politicians have been indicted across coastal Spain for alleged corruption. They are accused of taking illegal payments in exchange for allowing construction on the beaches, despite warnings from experts that the projects may not be economically or environmentally sound.

Tarifa's mayor denies any such corruption here though, and is confident the hotel construction in his town will begin soon. So, this may be the last summer Valdevaqueros remains untouched.

For now, the migratory birds still fly overhead, unaware.

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