Thursday, August 10, 2017

 

More Bad News for the Priors

It's a well-known story, how almost ten years ago, Len and Helen Prior watched as a bulldozer operated by the provincial representative of the Junta de Andalucía knocked down their house in a quiet area outside the town of Vera (Almería). There weren't any particular plans for the location, it wasn't on a motorway, or a landing strip or a sewage station or a beach or a rare plantation or in a beauty spot or on a flood plain. It's just a quiet area behind Vera. There are a few other houses there, and ten years later, they are still all there, just as they were then.
So what was the point?
It certainly had an effect: untold millions of euros never made it to Almería, which then, in 2008, had an unemployment rate in the mid thirties - about the highest unemployment of anywhere in the whole of Europe. The Junta de Andalucía, which is so anal that it knows to the exact head how many sheep there are in the territory (seriously, they're all microchipped), airily suggested at the time that there were some 300,000 illegal properties stretched across Andalucía - all built while someone, everyone, was looking the other way... at least until the cheques cleared.
Ten years later, there are still a few court cases - even a few mayors or planners being sent down (always from other parties than the PSOE, of course). As for the home-owners, who often had an illegal house with no water or electricity, well, they could usually go and whistle Dixie.
A lawyer called Gerardo Vásquez, an association called the AUAN, the international press and a number of other concerned people put some dents in this astonishing situation, and the Junta de Andalucía's legislators eventually came up with a new Spanish word to describe these homes: 'alegal' which means neither legal nor illegal. Illegalish, perhaps. So much the better. A climb down indeed. In a recent case, the mayor of another non-socialist Almería town went to jail... but the houses were allowed to stand. Empty, vandalised and useless, but justice tempered with mercy was seen to prevail.
The Priors, almost ten years later, are still living in the ruins of their home. This of course is very contrary of them, since they should have long since slipped away back to the UK to be forgotten.
They live in the garage (unbelievably, it was on a separate deed and thus escaped the demolition), plus some sheds they've built, and surrounded by their garden and their swimming pool which also escaped the attack.
Vera Town Hall was declared the guilty party (it was run by the Partido Andalucista at the time of the events described) but the Priors never received compensation.
Now, as the authorities continue to ignore this atrocious attack on Len and Helen's civil rights, we hear that the Town Hall is now claiming some 24,843€ in legal costs against them.
Len says he'll go to jail before he pays. 




Tuesday, August 08, 2017

 

How Many Tourists are 'Enough'?



Tourism brings untold wealth and a huge number of jobs to Spain – yet there are now some voices raised against this summer onslaught.

Hotels often use the ‘all-inclusive’ plan, which means that the clients can drink and eat for free – within their hotel. The bar round the corner may not be too pleased, but it won’t be a member of a wealthy gremio: an association, a guild really, of powerful businessmen with ‘friends in high places’. The hotels, whether all-inclusive or not, not only set the standards for tourism (being, as it were, the owners of ‘expert opinion on all matters to do with tourism’), they also frown on anyone who stays in any establishment that isn’t one of their own.

While we wait for a caution for putting up friends in our guest bedroom, we already have fresh, stringent rules in place against short-term rentals. Leading the rentals is the Airbnb company, which puts your apartment or spare room on its books. The level of attack against this service is intense, with daily press stories bemoaning the opening up of guest-rooms to a different kind of visitor, and income to a different kind of small businessperson. In the Balearics, apparently, you can get a 40,000€ fine for renting your place to tourists. Meanwhile, a story this week in El Independiente talks of 50,000 Airbnb offers in Ibiza, 20,500 in Barcelona and over 16,000 in Madrid – money that the hotels simply aren’t getting. Seventy five million tourists visited Spain from abroad last year, and many millions more Spaniards also hit the beaches or the museums or perhaps went off to see their relatives in their pueblo. One way or another (with this heat), a lot of beer was drunk.

In some cases, following the beer and perhaps the consumption of other stimulating products available on the street corner, damage was done to the local infrastructure. Someone being sick in the garden, some kids playing their music loud around the pool, a street light wilfully broken. Ten young people sharing (and destroying) a two-bed apartment... The residents don’t like this behaviour: the trickle-down of tourist money never makes it to them. Only the noise, the queues, the inconvenience and the hassle.

How much money does tourism bring to Spain? 16% of Spain’s GDP apparently comes from the visitors. But not much of that makes it to your particular pocket if you are a waiter. An article in Iniciativa Debate talks of twelve hour shifts, seven days a week work (the owner only declares four) for 700 euros per month. The same source looks at room cleaners who get 1,50€ per room. It talks of summer rent increases from 500 to 900 euros and asks: ‘Do you suffer from turismofobia’?

So, as we see in El Español, we get groups of people, or extreme left wing gangs, or simple graffitists, or perhaps some fed-up burgers, who have had enough. They start complaining about the hoards of visitors and put up posters or graffiti of the ‘tourist go home’ variety as they start to make their presence felt.  The Government has even gone as far as to threaten a harsh reaction to anyone who practices anti-tourist activities.

Some of the tourists aren’t very happy either, with new (rather pointless) procedures at the airports adding long impatient queues for holidaymakers. What is this? Our money not good enough, they ask. The Olive Press talks here of ‘Why you may have to queue for four hours at Spanish airports’ (It’s as bad as getting into Gibraltar!).

Tourism brings jobs and wealth, but it also brings inconvenience, rental hikes, vandalism and – sometimes even airport strikes. Like most things in life – there’s the good and the bad. Our advice: head for the hills!

Monday, July 24, 2017

 

A Short Visit to Oporto

After a few days in Aveiro, a large town on the Portuguese coast somewhere north of Lisbon, we decided to take the train up to Oporto to see the sights, to buy a bottle of vintage port and to meet with a fellow blogger called Colin (for a take on the daily news and opinion about Spain, see Colin Davies here).
We took the train.
The station in Aveiro is manned by a delightful collection of people who speak absolutely nothing except the local patois, and while I managed to explain that we wanted to daily returns no stoppee, it was a lottery as to whether I had got it right - especially since the whole cost for both of us was 12 euros all in, one hour each way including a number of brief stops in small country stations.
Through the window, we finally saw the beach. Aveiro is nominally on the coast - it's a town with canals - but the beaches are several kilometres off, behind dunes and scrub. At last the ocean - apparently cold and inhospitable - was in view. Perhaps another time.
The main charm for me from our mobile viewpoint was the giant bird-nests that seem to decorate the top of every beautiful and noble man-made construction in the western half of the Iberian peninsular. The more sublime the edifice, the more likelihood of a giant mess of twigs and a very self-satisfied crane crowning the building, to the irritation of the owners and the evident delight of the birds themselves.
Another pleasure is the greenery; after living far too long in the scrub of Northern Almeria, to find that everything in the countryside is green - when, of course, not on fire or scorched (there's a chunk of Portugal on fire this afternoon)  - is calming and faintly nostalgic.
The train was full, it stops in all the small villages en route and its timetable means it calls by every hour. Compare this with our own noble and idiotic plan to build an AVE through Almería and on to Murcia - a train which will be empty, hurtle by without stopping twice a day, and cost the taxpayer a fortune.
Still, who is gonna boast about a local train service?
Oporto - the Portuguese call it Porto - made me feel like a hick. Aveiro is a large town with lots of three-storey buildings - pretty ones mostly, although the modern 'architects' are beginning to make their move - but Oporto is a proper city with the most beautiful tenements, churches, plazas, bridges and noble buildings - many of them dwarfing the pedestrians below.
We met Colin, who had taken a train down from Pontevedra in Galicia, where he lives, and went for lunch.
Colin, remarking on the changes in Oporto - apparently twenty years ago, much of it was in disrepair, and certain areas were dangerous (or jolly, depending on your approach to 'night-life') - told me that tourism had done much to save Oporto, but, as it does, it would ultimately ruin it (see Mojácar for an example of this truism).
After lunch, taken in a small place that Colin knows - a place where we all tried to make ourselves understood, including the grinning owner, but where every plate was not only an unexpected delight, but was also, well, unexpected. But then again - we travel, do we not,  to enjoy small surprises, good sights and better company.
The pictures are on the camera roll, but here's one of the place which sells port.


Wednesday, July 05, 2017

 

The Olive Threat.



With monoculture – the practice of planting a single, extended crop – comes a higher profit, but at the same more risk. The gigantic and extended olive tree population of Spain could become the next cash-crop to be in danger. As Iberia Nature says, ‘...Spain is by some way the country with the highest number of olive trees (more than 300 million), in the world and is nowadays the world's leading olive and olive oil producer and exporter. Of the 2.1 million hectares (5.19 million acres) of olive groves, 92% are dedicated to olive oil production...’. Now, according to El Periódico, a destructive bacteria, known disturbingly as ‘the Ebola of the Olive Tree’, has been found in a Valencia plantation in Guadalest, Alicante. The bacterium spreads rapidly and dries out the trees by inhibiting the passage of the sap. The ecologists are working hard to contain the outbreak of xylella fastidiosa, while being aware that the olive oil business in Spain is worth at least 1,886 million euros annually.
Worse still, the plague doesn’t only attack the olive trees; it also will dry out citrus trees, plum, peach, almonds and grape-vines.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

 

Breakfast in Spain



In the eighties, a bumper-sticker plastered on the back of a number of vehicles in the USA’s most intriguing state would read ‘Welcome to California, Now Go Home’. Behind the wheel of the old rust-bucket bought from a dealer in Detroit (where else?), I felt a bit of an interloper driving around The Golden State with my travellers cheques, my snappy British accent and my half-empty jar of Ovaltine.
Tourism may not have been such a Big Thing in California, despite the popular song from Supertramp (here ya go) and the steady arrival of farmers from the Dust Belt looking for a decent job; but, at 12% of GDP (here), it’s certainly a Big Thing in Spain. Last year, around twice as many foreign tourists visited this country as there are Spaniards living here. And, if that was not enough – two people in lederhosen, or perhaps sticky ‘Gibraltar is British’ tee-shirts – for every Spaniard, you can add the huge numbers of displaced Spaniards themselves – everyone has a right to a vacación – flocking to the same destinations.
Those resorts will have put up the flags, organised a fiesta and will be ready for the onslaught. Shops full of glitter, bars with cold beer and restaurants with fresh fish. The late night joints will be buzzing and the cops will be on every corner, nervously fingering their books of fines. A loud midnight buzz of people, fun, parties, botellones, noise, fire-crackers, sirens, arguments, screams, music, songs and the burble and bang from those irritating Harley Davidsons... The following morning, there’s the rubbish to clean up.
Money is made, vast amounts of money for the shop-keepers, the apartment owners, the barkeeps, the municipality itself – but that’s no consolation for the normal folk, those who live there year round, working in ordinary jobs or retired, who must somehow get through their day: past the jams, the queues, the noise and the dust.
The town fiesta: costumes and spectacle, paid with our taxes, is so full of visitors, that there’s no parking, no room, no welcome for the locals, who with resignation, decide to stay home. ‘We’ll go next year’ they say.  
The apartment block: with half of the flats rented out, a two-bed apartment with twelve people staying there, filling the pool for a late-night dip, uprooting the flower bed and being sick in the lift.
So now we have a new word: la turismofobia. And we read the headlines, particularly about Barcelona and Madrid, Granada and Palma, where the cities are taken over by the tourist hoards. This is a fabulous country and there are few better places to live; but on the car, there’s a new sticker. It reads: ‘Welcome to Spain. Now Go Home’.

Friday, June 16, 2017

 

Looking a Gift Horse in the Wallet



The richest man in the world – sometimes, when he isn’t ousted to second place by Bill Gates – is Spain’s Amancio Ortega. He is estimated to have 71 thousand million euros as of November last year. (His daughter Sandra has another 7,600 million). Sr Ortega’s wealth comes from his Inditex fashion group, best known for its chain of Zara clothing and accessories retail shops (Wiki). He started pretty much from scratch in around 1950 after leaving school at 14 and finding employment in ‘the rag trade’; his father a lowly railway worker. He opened his first Zara shop in 1975.
Inditex itself is doing exceptionally well, with El País reporting that ‘Inditex, the group that owns chains like Zara, Oysho or Massimo Dutti, recorded a strong rise in sales in its first fiscal quarter, from February to April. Specifically, they stood at 5,569 million euros, up 14% on the same period in 2016. This led to its profits rising: the net result amounted to 654 million, an increase of 18%...’.
Amancio Ortega has recently captured the attention of his countrymen after he ‘...donated 320 million euros specifically for the acquisition of 290 pieces of oncology apparatus. It is one of the largest philanthropic donations ever made in the country. According to a statement by the Amancio Ortega Foundation, the charity set up by the billionaire in 2001, equipment would “allow more accurate diagnoses and provide patients with less aggressive, more effective and shorter treatments."...’. (From Newsweek here). However, not everyone was happy.
‘Why do we reject the infiltration into public health of Big Business and wealthy magnates? Asks Nueva Tribuna here.
El Mundo reports that some public health associations say that the gift should be returned, as ‘We aim towards adequate financing of our needs through a progressive tax system that redistributes resources prioritizing public health’, rather, they say, than through a gift which  – while a huge amount – is small compared to the 1,256 million in dividends earmarked to go to Ortega from Inditex this year.
So, for Sr Ortega, perhaps the donation is a small thing: perhaps it is an exercise in self-promotion or a sop towards his creative tax activities. Should we accept such largess? Perhaps a better question might be – shouldn’t we encourage it?

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