September 9, 2011

Sol y playa: Beach tourism and the "Costas" of Spain

A little over ten years ago, when I first visited Spain, I arrived on an overnight ferry from England. The Portsmouth to Santander boat. Being new to Europe, I knew nothing about Spain's usual tourist denizens. I was en route to Madrid and then Andalucía, following the common American pilgrimage of Lorca and gypsy Spain. So when one of the Brits onboard asked me, "Where are you going, cost-a del sol or cost-a brava?", I didn't know how to answer. I imagine it surprised them when I told them I wasn't visiting a beach. (It was August after all.) But I will confess that I didn't even know where Costa del Sol or Costa Brava were.

I'm pretty sure Hemingway was not much of a beach goer, and when he wrote about sand in Spain he was surely writing about bullfighting rings rather than beaches. But let's face it, the number one motivation for most tourists coming to Spain is probably its beaches. Perhaps Blasco Ibañez's work Sangre y Arena (blood and sand) would today be rewritten and titled "Sangría y Arena." I'm using this entry as an excuse to educate myself and readers about Spain's typical beach regions, the famous "Costas" that Brits flock to in hoards, each with their slightly different regional flavors and beach experiences.

Putting aside for the moment Ibiza (and the other Balearic islands) and the Canary Islands, the principal "sol y playa" destinations in Spain are probably Costa del Sol (Málaga), Costa Brava (around Barcelona), and Costa Blanca (south of Valencia around Alicante).

Costa del Sol (Sun Coast) runs along the south of Spain, Andalucía's Mediterranean coast, is most heavily populated by British tourists who frequently fly directly into Malaga. Its most (in)famous beach towns are probably Torremolinos and Marbella. This beach zone is popular because tourists can take breaks from the sun with daytrips to famous Andalusian sites like Ronda or Granada, and enjoy the local British Spanish tradition of sherry jeréz. To give you a sense of the high caliber of tourism it can attract, it is periodically referred to in British news as the "Costa de Crime" and exposé-ed as a place where British criminals like to hangout and lay low. One hilariously honest explanation for this: "Spain is an attractive place to go and hide because of the weather and the lifestyle." Hey, even criminals need vacation!

No longer a fishing village. Mass beach tourism at Lloret de Mar,
a town one guide not long ago described as having the highest
concentration of hotels of any point along the coast.
Costa Blanca and Costa Brava are similarly infested with low-cost beach tourism, though they have a higher proportion of German and French presence, respectively. Costa Blanca (White Coast), the southeastern coastline of Alicante, is distinguished by its large community of German and British expats, retirees who have settled in this area making it a near permanent expat colony. The airport of the capital Alicante, followed by Valencia, are the most common entry points for this British invasion tourism; Benidorm, Torrevieja, Jávea, and Denia are several of its more prominent beach destinations. Costa Brava ("Rough Sea" Coast), is the northeastern coastline north of Barcelona running up to the French border. Many of its more famous beachtowns, Tossa de Mar and Lloret de Mar, for example, were once fishing villages that have been highjacked by beach resort development and transformed into seaside resorts. The tourists here are more heavily French, and more often families, too, since they can do a road trip south. Though there is also the Barcelona effect on tourism, since visitors from other countries (particularly Italy and Britain) can fly into to the Catalonia capital (or into Girona on lowcost carriers) and combine a tour of Barcelona with a weekend at the beach.

And what of the other Costas? Frankly, if it is not along the Mediterranean coast, then chances are that Brits and other foreigners haven't heard of it. The Costa Verde (Green Coast) of Asturias and Costa Vasca (Basque Coast) of the Basque Country have beautiful beaches, but the weather is substantially less sunny and the North Atlantic Ocean water notably colder. So not quite as alluring for laying out in the sun and getting that perfect tan. That said, these areas have become popular alternatives for Spaniards seeking to avoid the mass tourism of the other Costas, and the hiking trails, picturesque fishing villages, and amazing local food make them attractive tourist destinations in their own right.

The rugged, green and tranquil coastlines of the Basque Country.


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Anonymous said...

Yeah, that´s perfectly right, you have to search a little bit, but then you can find beautiful treasures in the area of Lloret, at some places you will find the really unspoilt Costa Brava. Thanks for sharing.. keep updating..

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