Sixty years ago, British film director David Lean traveled to Spain’s remote southern province of Almería to shoot his Oscar-winning movie, “Lawrence of Arabia.”
The location was chosen because “this really was just an empty desert facing the beautiful sea,” recalled Peter Beale, who was a young runner on the film set. The movie crew built a plywood replica of Aqaba, the Red Sea port city, in a dry riverbed leading down to the pristine beach of Algarrobico, a temporary stand-in for Lawrence and his troops to charge on horseback and capture.
In the decades following, many other parts of the Spanish coastline became almost unrecognizable, with massive construction to draw tourists and their dollars. Resort towns mushroomed, yachting marinas eclipsed fishing ports, and golf courses became the greenery of choice to lure foreign visitors, including many retirees from northern Europe.
But even as Almería was itself transformed by greenhouse agriculture, much of its land remained pristine and windswept, rugged and arid, hosting few aside from film crews keen to offer the likes of Clint Eastwood, Orson Welles, Yul Brynner and Jack Nicholson a striking terrain worthy of their movie adventures. To this day, Almería remains relatively hard to access, unconnected to the high-speed rail network that crisscrosses the rest of Spain.
However, mass tourism has not spared Almería entirely, and the beach where Lean built Aqaba is now dominated by an equally incongruous but strikingly more permanent and less successful project: a 21-story hotel that was abandoned when it was nearing completion nearly two decades ago. With three construction cranes still hovering above, the derelict hotel stands as an unused, unusable eyesore in the midst of one of the largest protected nature sanctuaries in southern Europe, the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Nature Reserve.
How such a hotel could be erected, and what should now happen to its giant concrete carcass, has been the subject of a 15-year court battle — one that has also become a litmus test for whether Spain can encourage more sustainable development in its travel industry, which has long underpinned the Spanish economy. The saga of the Algarrobico hotel also underlines another serious issue in Spain and anywhere else where real estate acts as an economic engine: When it comes to facilitating tourism, nature is more easily damaged than repaired.
“How the Algarrobico hotel can still exist is a mystery, but unfortunately the truth is that it is not an isolated case and there have been other Algarrobicos along the Spanish coast,” said Pilar Marcos, a biologist who runs the Spanish biodiversity projects of Greenpeace, the nongovernmental environmental organization. “We have repeatedly managed to ignore regulations in search of the golden goose,” she said.
A permit, and then a court battle
The history of the hotel is convoluted, but understanding the timeline can help explain just how a tourism project can go wrong when political, financial and environmental interests are misaligned.
The Cabo de Gata was declared a nature park in 1987. Covering almost 150 square miles of volcanic land, the park encompasses open plains, shrubby hills and coves. It also includes a few existing fishing villages and former mining settlements. When the park was created, the local municipality of Carboneras relabeled a section of the protected area as buildable land. It was eventually bought by Azata, a Spanish real estate developer, which then received a local permit to build its beachfront hotel in 2003. The only other buildings nearby are private homes that were built before the park was created.
Arguing that the hotel contravened the protected status of the park, environmental activists went to court and got a judge to freeze the project in 2006, just as the hotel was reaching the final stages of construction. A decadelong court battle followed until, after several appeals, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that the hotel violated the park’s protection laws.
Then a new court battle began over who should be responsible for demolition of the hotel and who should pay for rehabilitation of the surrounding landscape.
While the case has dragged on through more than 20 separate rulings, the hotel has been decaying. Its white facade is defaced by graffiti, and one of the bay windows has the word “demolition” in Spanish painted in large blue letters across it.
In contrast to the Aqaba film set — which was quickly dismantled with help from the local villagers, who rushed to reuse its plywood planks — there is no clear end in sight for the disastrous hotel. In the latest twist, the highest regional court of Andalusia ruled in July that the hotel did not have to be destroyed after all, because Azata, the real estate developer, had a valid building license. Azata didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Beautiful beaches, ugly beach towns
In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Spain was the second most popular destination in the world — after France and ahead of the United States — with almost 84 million international visitors. A significant number traveled to the fine-sand beaches of eastern and southern Spain, often staying in heavily built resort towns that also cater to package tourists, like in the skyscraper town of Benidorm. Amid this sea of concrete, Cabo de Gata offered a sharp contrast.
The park is “undoubtedly the crown jewel among our ecosystems in southern Spain, and the one important area where our simplistic sun-and-beach tourism model has not prevailed,” said Marcos of Greenpeace.
Even so, environmentalists say they are fighting an uphill struggle to stop more damaging tourism projects, even in places like Almería with high percentages of protected land. Some argue that property speculators have been encouraged by political and legal systems that rarely punish illegal construction. In 2019, the regional lawmakers of Andalusia even voted an amnesty for about 300,000 housing units that had breached construction rules, many of them close to the sea.
Since 1988, Spain has had a coastal protection law to limit seafront projects, but “that has not prevented Spain from continuing to build along its shores in a way that I don’t think any other European country has allowed,” said José Ignacio Domínguez, a lawyer who was instrumental in the lawsuit against the Algarrobico hotel.
Other tourism projects also scar the chiseled coastline of Almería. A short drive from the Algarrobico hotel stands another abandoned hotel on the Macenas beach, at the entrance to the town of Mojácar. The hotel’s concrete-cube construction, a contrast to a nearby 18th-century fortified tower, was brought to an early and unwanted halt by the bursting of Spain’s construction bubble in 2008. Nobody seems to know just when this concrete honeycomb will be removed, if ever.
In Mojácar, an association of environmental activists, called “Save Mojácar,” has recently been staging protests against a plan by town politicians to significantly increase the land area allocated to real estate projects. The activists even present a “tour of destruction” to show people where further construction could destroy the landscape.
“Our politicians would like to double the number of tourism apartments here, even though we still have many apartments that were abandoned because of the financial crisis,” said Jaime del Val, a performance artist who leads the Mojácar association. “We could be doing sustainable tourism, but we keep instead going in the opposite direction of mass tourism, because greed and corruption are rooted within the Spanish real estate sector.”