A Ghost Hotel Haunts the Spanish Coastline

For almost two decades, the hulk of a never-finished hotel has marred an idyllic coastline in southern Spain. Its fate remains cloudy, but the lesson is clear: It’s easier to damage the environment than to fix it.,

For almost two decades, the hulk of a never-finished hotel has marred an idyllic coastline in southern Spain. Its fate remains cloudy, but the lesson is clear: It’s easier to damage the environment than to fix it.

Sixty years ago, the British film director David Lean traveled to Spain’s remote southern province of Almer?a 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 river bed 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 Almer?a 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, Almer?a remains relatively hard to access, unconnected to the high-speed rail network that crisscrosses the rest of Spain.

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Sea cliffs in the Cabo de Gata-N?jar Nature Reserve, one of the largest protected nature sanctuaries in southern Europe.Credit…Ben Roberts for The New York Times

However, mass tourism has not spared Almer?a 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-N?jar 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.

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Construction equipment still litters what would have been the lobby of the Algarrobico hotel. Credit…Ben Roberts for The New York Times

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 decade-long 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 the demolition of the hotel, as well as who should pay for the rehabilitation of the surrounding landscape.

While the case has dragged on through more than 20 separate rulings, the hotel itself 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 Ms. Marcos of Greenpeace.

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Ivan Garc?a is the director general of Playas y Cortijos, a company hoping to convert a former farmhouse into a 30-room boutique hotel. The site is a kilometer inland from Playa de los Genoveses, a remote and pristine beach in the Cabo de Gata park. Credit…Ben Roberts for The New York Times

The Cabo de Gata park attracts nature lovers and hikers, as well as fans of adventure sports like scuba diving and kite surfing. There is no accommodation of more than 45 rooms within the park, and in the summer many visitors head for one of the campgrounds, where they can gaze at the stars at night.

The Algarrobico hotel has invigorated local environmental activism. Last year, about 200,000 people signed a petition to stop a boutique hotel from opening in front of another of the park’s beaches, called Genoveses. The hotel’s promoters still hope to get the green light, stressing that their 30-room hotel would rehabilitate an existing farmhouse and its stables, without building anything new from scratch.

“The Algarrobico was a giant aberration that has unfortunately stigmatized any kind of new economic activity in this whole area,” said Ivan Garc?a, the director general of Grupo Playas y Cortijos, the company that wants to open the boutique hotel. Mr. Garc?a claims that the company’s plans are respectful of the laws of the park, will make use of existing buildings and will add 25 jobs. “If nobody creates jobs around here, we will not protect this beautiful area but instead allow it to depopulate completely and die off,” he said. Almer?a has an unemployment rate of 21 percent.

Even so, environmentalists say they are fighting an uphill struggle to stop more damaging tourism projects, even in places like Almer?a 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 Jos? Ignacio Dom?nguez, a lawyer who was instrumental in the lawsuit against the Algarrobico hotel.

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Near the town of Moj?car, construction on a second hotel was halted in 2008, when the financial crisis hit. It is unclear what will happen to the abandoned structure. Credit…Ben Roberts for The New York Times

Other tourism projects also scar the chiseled coastline of Almer?a. A short drive from the Algarrobico hotel stands another abandoned hotel on the Macenas beach, at the entrance to the town of Moj?car. 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 Moj?car, an association of environmental activists, called “Save Moj?car,” has recently been staging protests against a plan by town politicians to increase significantly the land area allocated to real estate projects. The activists even present a so-called “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 Moj?car 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.”

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Construction cranes still stand over the unfinished Algarrobico hotel, even as the structure molders. Credit…Ben Roberts for The New York Times

For now, Almer?a has been enjoying a bumper tourism year, as more people have sought to escape city crowds amid the coronavirus pandemic.

And many local residents just want to stop talking about the Algarrobico hotel debacle.

Jos? Luis Am?rigo, the mayor of Carboneras, said the fate of the hotel and the mistakes of the past, were for the courts to judge. (His uncle was the politician who awarded the hotel’s construction license in 2003.)

“If you are driving a car and looking constantly in the rearview mirror, you might not get to where you want to go,” he said.

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