Developing the dunes: Tarifa tourism project divides Andalusian leftists

Plan to build resort on Cádiz’s last unspoilt beach reflects “obsolete model,” says IU

Surf’s up? Plans to build a large tourist complex on the white sands of Valdevaqueros have angered citizens and environmental groups.
Surf’s up? Plans to build a large tourist complex on the white sands of Valdevaqueros have angered citizens and environmental groups.JULIÁN ROJAS

A plan to build a resort on one of Cádiz’s last unspoilt beaches has divided the ruling coalition in the Andalusian government and triggered vocal opposition from citizens and environmental groups.

Valdevaqueros, in Tarifa, is a wind-blown stretch of white sandy dunes that has been drawing surfers and latter-day hippies for years. Now, a project dating back to the 1990s could turn this natural spot into yet another tourist complex complete with a hotel with 1,400 beds and 350 housing units. A private investment group is behind the initiative.

The Socialist Party and United Left (IU), partners in the regional ruling coalition, are giving out contradictory messages regarding the project. They voted against each other at local level when the issue came up in a plenary session of Tarifa’s city council. The local IU spokesman, Ezequiel Andreu, said the project reflected “a building model that is now obsolete,” in reference to the real estate crash in Spain and the thousands of homes lying empty, especially along the Spanish coast.

Nevertheless, the building plan was approved by the council with the support of Socialists, Andalusian nationalists and the conservative Popular Party, which is in power in Tarifa. The independent party Unión Liberal por Tarifa (ULT) abstained, and IU was the only political group to oppose the plan. Around 100 people showed up at the city hall to protest.

The Andalusian housing commissioner, Elena Cortés of IU, said the Valdevaqueros project “takes us back to the kind of policies that led us to this situation.” Meanwhile, the Andalusian environment commissioner, Luis Planas of the Socialist Party, has stated that regional authorities would be “very exacting and rigorous” with the environmental criteria affecting the resort. He noted the “provisional” approval is based on a Zoning Plan from 1995 and that the Andalusian government’s priority is “protecting the environment.” He also asked for coordination between local, regional and central authorities so that “environmental issues do not become a matter of controversy but of unity.”

The contradictory messages illustrate how the initiative might create an internal rift within the regional government. The Socialists handle the department of the environment, which includes city planning, while IU runs the department of public works, housing and tourism.

The city of Tarifa insists that the development entails “very low construction density” because “only” 84,000 square meters of land may be built on, out of a total surface area of over 700,000 square meters. Technically, it is called Plan Parcial Sector Litoral 1 Valdevaqueros, and affects the equivalent of 700 soccer fields. Behind the plan is a company called GMT, whose visible face is the architect Juan Muñoz. Ever since the idea first came up in the 1990s, it has received support from the city of Tarifa, alternately ruled by the PP and the Socialists.

But the green party EQUO has said the project violates European legislation and that it will take it up with the European Parliament. Its leader, Juan López de Uralde, former chief of Greenpeace Spain, called for a freeze on the project and said it was proof the crisis has not quite put an end to the threat posed by construction on Spain’s coastline.

“The cordon of dunes at Valdevaqueros is one of the last virgin landscapes in Spain and it is located in an area that is known worldwide for its sustainable tourism,” said Pilar Marcos, head of the save-the-coast campaign for Greenpeace. “A revival of the bricks-and-mortar model is no way to solve the crisis.”

Meanwhile, a grassroots movement has sprung up to stop the plans via the power of the social networks, and #salvemosvaldevaqueros (SaveValdevaqueros) was a trending topic on Twitter all day Tuesday. The movement’s spokeswoman, Noelia Jurado, said the building project “seeks real estate profit from land that is located between the Strait Natural Park and Los Alcornocales Natural Park” and that “the affected area is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve.” Protestors are planning to stage demonstrations and file complaints with the attorney’s office.

But public officials approve of the project. “The information about the Plan Parcial de Valdevaqueros is being distorted,” said Tarifa Mayor Juan Andrés Gil. “This is a modern real estate project, very much in the line of ‘soft development’ and well integrated into the landscape. The contemplated building density is very low [...] for every existing square meter, only 0.12 will be built on. The project envisages homes with a ground floor and first floor and hotel accommodation with a ground floor and two stories above it.”

Gil, who feels the victim of “a smear campaign,” confronted protestors during the plenary session and accused them of hurting the town’s economic potential. “We have 40 percent unemployment in Tarifa,” he said, adding that the hotels would create “600 fixed jobs, besides the construction work.”

The debate could be illustrated as a showdown between neoprene suits and conventional bathing suits, or in other words, between two different ways of viewing tourism and leisure.

“This should stay the way it is. This beach is for sports,” says Francisco Javier Zarco, 23, who opposes the development plans.

“This will fill up and there will be too many people,” adds Samuel Trujillo, 26. Both are fans of kite surfing.

But José Jiménez, a native of Tarifa and the conventional bathing suit type, differs. “I think the project is great. We need to guide this place toward other tourism sectors, toward people with money,” he says.

Everyone agrees that if the project goes ahead, it will radically change the type of tourism now in practice, based on small hotels and camping areas.

“They want to force a model that did not develop naturally in Tarifa, as it did elsewhere along the coast,” says Alejandra Pablos, a Madrileña who opened a small hotel here seven years ago. “That city plan entails trying to introduce the classic sun-and-sand model that is already guaranteed in places like Málaga or Valencia and Murcia. But that model would not work here, because the strong wind can keep you away from the beach for 15 days. The tourism here is different, and it seeks wild beaches.”

Under threat in Almería


It is not just the Cádiz coast that is under threat from Spain’s construction craze. In Almería province, up to three hotel projects are at various stages of development inside the protected Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve.

This week, an Almería court initiated fast-track proceedings against former Andalusian regional government officials who halted a project in Campillo de Gata in Las Salinas — a series of salt flats under special protection. The complaint was brought in July 2010 by the developer, Círculo Agroambiental, S. L., a month after construction work was effectively halted. The 50-room hotel project obtained the permit from Níjar town hall in 1999, when the Socialists were in power. But the regional government initiated legal proceedings to stop the plans, claiming the hotel was in a protected zone. Yet in early 2010 the Andalusia High Court handed down two rulings favorable to business interests.

Also this week, the Popular Party in Almería expressed full support for the opening of the controversial El Algarrobico hotel complex in Carboneras, inside Cabo de Gata. Halted by green groups, it had become a symbol of untrammeled construction on the Spanish coast.

In a further setback, authorities have repealed legislation protecting an area of Aguamarga, a white village that attracts many tourists, where there are plans to build a huge hotel.

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