Lighthouses into hotels: Shining examples of reconversion?

Spain is finalizing plans to allow some old towers to be turned into accommodation

The lighthouse on Isla Pancha in Ribadeo (Lugo).
The lighthouse on Isla Pancha in Ribadeo (Lugo).Albrecht Weißer (GmbH)

One day, José Luis López Braña was passing by the abandoned lighthouse perched atop Isla Pancha, a tiny island that looks northward out to the Atlantic on Spain’s rocky Galician coast. Admiring the blue-and-white structure built in 1857, it occurred to him that it would make a perfect hotel.

Letting his imagination run free, he saw himself as a guest, crossing the small bridge to the islet and closing the gate to enjoy this one-hectare green space located next to the Ribadeo estuary and buffeted by the Cantabrian sea.

Civic associations have criticized the plans for closing off the lighthouses to the local community

In December 2013, López Braña put together a proposal and approached authorities to discuss the idea. While waiting for a reply, Public Works Minister Ana Pastor announced a plan to convert some of the country’s network of 187 lighthouses into hotels. He is now awaiting official approval, and has been told that it will only be a matter of weeks before he can begin his project.

The former lighthouse at Ribadeo will be the first lighthouse-hotel in Spain. It will have two suites measuring 40 square meters, each with room for up to four people. There will be a cafeteria and restaurant in the basement, which will be open to the public during regular island visiting hours. López Braña intends to invest between €80,000 and €100,000 to turn the former lighthouse keepers’ accommodation into comfortable hotel rooms.

The majority of Spain’s lighthouses have been computerized and are no longer manned by keepers

He will have to pay an annual local fee of around €15,600, and intends to charge guests around €150 a night (€300 during high season, in July and August). “If I get 100 nights a year at that price, then the numbers will add up,” says López Braña, who is already thinking about converting other, bigger lighthouses.

The majority of Spain’s lighthouses have been computerized and are no longer manned by keepers, which means they are empty. Since the government announced its plans in 2014, it has received requests to convert around 20 of them into hotels, says José Llorca, the head of the Ports Authority.

Sources at the agency said that after Isla Pancha, there will be others. A decision is expected in early May on a project to convert the Trafalgar lighthouse in Cádiz. And after the May 24 municipal elections, more approvals may be granted for the lighthouses on the island of Tabarca and Cape San Antonio, both in Alicante province, and in El Pescador, in Santander.

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Opposition to the plans has come from some environmental groups, which note that many of the sites are located in highly protected areas. Civic associations have also criticized the plans for closing off the lighthouses to local community use.

Rafael Quirós, mayor of Barbate, where the Trafalgar lighthouse is located, acknowledges that there has been opposition, but insists the proposal is “the right one.” He says that any winning project must include a visitors’ center that would likely focus on the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. Quirós says the projected hotel would have between five and seven rooms, along with a restaurant, and would cost around €1 million to complete.

Leading lights

D. C.

Isla Pancha (Ribadeo, Lugo province, Galicia). This is the most advanced project. The developer wants to convert the old lighthouse into a two-bedroom hotel with a restaurant. The island, which is connected to the mainland via a small bridge, has another lighthouse that is still in use.

Cape Trafalgar (Barbate, Cádiz province, Andalusia). The 34-meter-high lighthouse has 420 square meters of space that was formerly used by lighthouse keepers and their families. Around half a dozen rooms are planned, but any project would have to include a visitors' center.

Cape San Antonio (Xábia, Alicante province, Valencia). The idea is to convert the lower part of this lighthouse, which has been situated in a nature reserve since 1993, into a six-room hotel.

Tabarca (Alicante). Also located in a protected area, this is one of Spain's larger lighthouses, and was formerly used as a school for training lighthouse keepers.

“The idea is to contribute to the local economy by boosting tourism,” says Llorca of the Ports Authority. The mayor of Ribadeo, Fernando Suárez, says the initiative is good news for the area.

However, concerns have been raised as to the economic viability of the conversion projects. David Moré, a respected scholar who has studied Spain’s lighthouses, says the idea of turning them into hotels comes from Scandinavia. “But the lighthouses there are much bigger; in Spain I don’t think they will be viable,” he says, pointing out that most Spanish lighthouses only have two keepers' residences, and that the original building needs to be respected.

“In short, the economic interests of the Ports Authority have taken precedence over technical criteria,” he concludes.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s ports authority, a pioneer in the use of lighthouses for cultural purposes, says it has no intention of selling off its 12 lighthouses to be turned into hotels, and that its priority is to provide maximum access to the general public.

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