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Tourism on the Costa del Sol

Tourism created the Costa del Sol, helped shape and make it what it is today. Has tourism here had its finest day or is the industry alive and well? We spoke to industry specialist Lynn Mitchell of the Patronato de Turismo de Málaga, to find out about the prospects of this vital sector.

Tourism was long vital to the local economy, not only as the main source of wealth and employment, but also as the force that lifted this once forgotten and impoverished region out of its isolation and into the modern age. It wasn’t that long ago that tourism replaced subsistence farming and fishing in places such as Marbella, Torremolinos and Sabinillas, and, drawing a parallel with Southern Italy, had it not been for tourism, large numbers of Andalusians may well have had to leave the region and seek employment in the factories of Northern Spain and Northern Europe. Fortunately, this was not necessary, and the tourism boom of the 1960s and 1970s helped create wealth and development to such an extent that it has now been superseded by other sectors, most notably residential development, as the driving force of the local economy. Have we travelled full circle to the point where tourism is in decline on the Costa del Sol, the very place it helped to create, or will tourism continue to play an important role in the years to come?

One thing is certain, tourism has come a long way on the Costa del Sol. Today, we know such places as Torremolinos and Fuengirola as high-volume, low-cost destinations that to some extent have become synonymous with the lesser aspects of tourism, but there was a time when Marbella was little more than a small fishing village and the palm-lined boulevards of Torremolinos was the place to be. Famous hotels, such as Pez Espada, played host to the likes of Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali, while Deborah Kerr, Sean Connery and James Hunt owned properties overlooking this untamed corner of the Mediterranean. There is even an anecdote of Frank Sinatra being kicked out of the Pez Espada because he was drunk…

Those were the halcyon days, you might say, which came under threat as soon as high-rise apart hotels, tourist shops and snack bars offering English breakfast started mushrooming along the boulevards. As the mass scene hit Torremolinos and Fuengirola, the jet-set simply moved to Marbella, which became a true glam resort in its own right. Since then, the Costa del Sol and the tourist industry have been through quite a few cycles, including up and down swings, but by the early 1990s Andalucía appeared to have reinvented itself as an attractive tourist package. “We didn’t re-brand ourselves as such,” says Lynn Mitchell, International Marketing Director of the Patronato de Turismo de Málaga. “We continued to refer to such powerful iconic attributes as sun, sea and Spanish culture, but presented them in a new, fresh way, emphasising the increasing diversity and sophistication of Andalucía, and the Costa del Sol in particular, as a first-class destination.”

Gone were references to the old-style package holidays that filled the beaches. High-quality, luxury resort hotels, glamorous Puerto Banús and the fantastic climate and facilities for golf were the main drawing cards for the new boom that followed, and in addition to such classic establishments as the Marbella Club Hotel and Hotel Los Monteros, the past few years have seen the construction of many luxurious four and five-star resort hotels. With a large number of fine hotels featuring everything from suites and business centres to spas and top-class restaurants, visitors to the Costa del Sol are spoiled for choice. The offer of first-class hotels is certainly there, all with excellent facilities and fine golf courses, shopping and entertainment nearby, yet circumstances both local and international have taken the steam out of the rapid growth that the industry experienced for almost a decade. The effects of international political instability are well-documented, as is the economic slowdown experienced in much of the industrialized world, but for the Costa del Sol the reality has been one in which occupancy rates and profitability have come under pressure.

“We cannot be complacent” says Lynn “in the face of increasing competition from newly emerging destinations such as Croatia, Bulgaria, Dubai and others. The Costa del Sol is endowed with great natural and climatic advantages, including quick and easy access to the main centres in Europe, but we realise that this is not the only sunny, beautiful place within reach. Likewise, we enjoy a leading position in terms of infrastructure, facilities and services offered, but there can never be complacency in an industry that is developing as rapidly as this one.” With this, Lynn refers not only to new resort destinations, but also to the rapidly-evolving nature of the industry itself, a situation which is driven by the increasingly complex consumption patterns of travellers. “It used to be rather straightforward and predictable, with people booking en masse and well in advance through travel agents. That made planning so much easier, but now average stays are dropping, destinations are becoming more diversified, people are travelling more often and for shorter periods, and they are making last-minute bookings via the Internet.” Indeed, low-cost carriers and surfing for deals on the Internet have changed the face of the industry.

“It makes it so much harder to predict and plan, but on the other hand the new technologies provide us with excellent information as to what our visitors like, want and demand. From this we can deduce the things we need to work on to keep our pole position in international tourism and we also pick up on unsatisfied niche markets and new products that can be developed to satisfy them.” Golf has added a highly valuable winter market to the familiar formula of sun, sea, luxury resorts and water sports activities, which focus on the summer months, effectively helping to create more of a balanced, year-round season. “This is a very important factor for the tourist industry, as is the development of complimentary market segments such as winter sports in the Sierra Nevada, cultural tourism in cities such as Granada and Córdoba, and rural tourism in the villages and countryside of the interior. Even though many of those destinations are not in the province of Málaga, we work together to promote Andalucía as one destination that offers a world of variety and diversity within a relatively small area.”

With increased competition from other areas and price pressure coming from the drive to cost parity within the euro zone, it is important that the region continues to focus on the quality of its offer. “That’s true. The Costa del Sol is no longer a place you go to because it’s so cheap. Other destinations have taken over that role, but with our uniquely convenient geographical location, coupled with a very high standard of service and facilities, we have to continue to move upwards to maintain a high quality/price ratio.” Vital in this is continued investment in the infrastructure, a factor which facilitated the development of tourism here and continues to be of great importance. “Self-evaluation and being critical of our standards of service puts the emphasis not only on providing a high level of vocational training through our hotel schools, but also includes exchange initiatives in which local students go abroad for work experience and to develop their language skills in situ.”

“After almost a decade of rapid development, the international tourist trade is going through a period of transition and adaptation out of which I believe it will emerge stronger and better equipped to meet the requirements of its customers. As for the Costa del Sol, we are working hard to continue to develop the standards of facilities and service offered, as well as developing important sub-markets such as golf, incentive and conference visits, rural tourism, ecotourism, winter sports and city breaks. The latter is especially important at the moment, as we are building on the culture, setting and Picasso heritage of Málaga to realise its potential as an exciting city destination. If we succeed in building on our already strong position in these fields, the Costa del Sol can continue to enjoy growth from three sources: the international market, the domestic Spanish market and the growing resident community itself.”

Tourism on the Costa del Sol by and copyright of Michel Cruz, for more information visit his web site at

Some images used in this article are copyright of Carlos Cáceres Lavergne . If you would like to purchase or see more images, please visit his web site