A controversial hotel project in Spain’s Cabo de Gata-Níjar natural park, in the southeastern province of Almería, is one step closer to going ahead. The project aims to transform a run-down cortijo (a farmstead typical of southern Spain) into a 30-room hotel with 70 parking spaces in the heart of the protected ecosystem. Consisting of several buildings that were formerly used as a rope factory and a farm, the hotel would stand about 900 meters from Los Genoveses beach, one of the best-preserved environmental gems in the Andalusia region.
The regional Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Sustainable Development department has granted Unified Environmental Authorization (AAU) to a project that aims to renovate the old Las Chiqueras cortijo.
The regional government has made its approval conditional on the developers obtaining authorization for the reuse of treated water and also on the project being declared of public interest, formalities that should go smoothly given the Andalusian government’s support. The plan has, however, been condemned by numerous environmental associations and over 250,000 people have protested against it on the petition platform Change.org.
But the government’s conditional go-ahead on January 12 will inevitably move forward a project that was first proposed in the summer of 2016. The regional environment chief, Carmen Crespo, who is herself from Almería province, has defended the initiative on several occasions, insisting that it is “a restoration” and that the action is legal. However, her position is far removed from that of organizations such as Ecologists in Action or Greenpeace, both of which believe the hotel will attract mass tourism into an area with fragile and protected ecosystems.
The Andalusian authorities stress that it is now up to the municipality of Níjar to give the final green light to the project. The regional government has also made clear that it is the municipality’s responsibility to declare the hotel of public interest. “What the regional department says is that the project complies with the regulations, now Níjar has the last word,” said a regional government source.
The issue has generated more than one row in the Andalusian regional parliament due to opposition from the left. Andalusian premier Juan Manuel Moreno Bonilla of the Popular Party (PP), who took up the job in January 2019 after four decades of Socialist Party (PSOE) rule, has boasted of a “green revolution” for Andalusia. But the Cabo de Gata hotel is just one more on a list of environmental controversies in the region, such as the proposal to transform almost 1,500 hectares of land around Doñana natural park into irrigated farms; speeding up the paperwork for the construction of hotels in Marbella that require rezoning; and the revival of a project for a large residential estate and golf course in Barbate (Cádiz).
In the past, the mayor of Níjar, Esperanza Pérez, has repeatedly stated that her hands are tied because the approval of the hotel “depends exclusively on the regional government,” stressing that the property is located in “specially protected undevelopable land.” Now, the regional authorities are insisting that it is Níjar’s responsibility to take the ultimate decision, and believe Pérez is trying to wash her hands of the responsibility.
During the early proceedings in 2016, the local Níjar council claimed that the hotel’s approval did not fall within its remit. In November 2019 the regional government, by then under PP administration, opposed the construction of 13 new rooms and the expansion of the parking area while approving the rest of the project. The project’s developers made the appropriate changes, eliminating the new parking area and relocating the rooms to the existing buildings. The developer was then forced to present a new environmental impact report, which was blasted by Ecologists in Action, Greenpeace, the Conservation and Cultural Association Friends of the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park, the green party Equo, the environmental group Mediterráneo and the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO-Birdlife). But their objections fell on deaf ears. In the summer of 2020, the regional government declared the project “viable,” triggering uproar in Níjar.
Now, with its favorable decision, Andalusia’s environmental department allows a period of five years for construction to start and imposes a series of technical conditions such as integrated access to the hotel and issues linked to waste management and infrastructure. The department has stipulated that the new buildings and the renovation of the existing ones must maintain “essential exterior aesthetics compatible with the traditional construction style of the area,” – single-story buildings, aesthetic buttresses and wooden exterior carpentry. The resolution also requires the developers to respect the existing vegetation and bans the opening of new roads or tracks in the surrounding area. They must also ensure that emissions are minimized while complying with the legal specifications for noise and light pollution. A series of requirements have also been established for waste management to ensure that the water supply and sanitation will not contaminate the ground with waste water in the event of plumbing problems.
The project plans to use almost 27,000 square meters of land classified as a Common Regulation Zone (for land traditionally used by humans for cultivation within the park) to the north of Los Genoveses beach. The cortijo was built in the early 20th century and one of its storage buildings was restored a decade ago to be used as an eco-museum that will, if the project goes ahead, remain open. The rest of the complex consists of scattered buildings, which will be used to house 30 rooms as well as a restaurant, while swimming pools will use the spaces in between. The renovation includes the remodeling of the current parking area to accommodate 70 vehicles, with permission to recondition, though not to pave, the road surface. The project also includes 950 square meters of photovoltaic panels for electricity supply and a water purification system.