We enjoy two winters here in Almería, the proper one, which lasts for a few months and is usually passably survivable, and the tourist one, which lasts rather longer. The first is a spell of cold, some rain, even some snow. We will have a couple of biblical events to keep us cheerful – a major flooding perhaps or a cliff collapse. A road is blocked and a pipe freezes. The price of long-sleeved tee-shirts goes up slightly and word reaches us of the British cabin crew on strike.
I have spent most of our winter out in the garden cutting down trees and sawing up firewood for the evening’s entertainment, in front of the telly. The rest of Europe pretends that they are managing just fine, thank you, while well aware that we are doing a lot better down here. Perhaps, as some recent survey suggests, 44% of the people remaining in Britain will decide to take up their inclination to move ‘overseas’, and it could be that a few of those, attracted by our weather, will head in this direction, their cheque book and the phone number of a really good lawyer in their inside pocket.
But our physical winter, three months of so-so weather, followed by nine months of sun, is inverted when it comes to ‘the season’. Tourists flock to Almería – Christmas and Easter excepted – during the summer break which just runs from mid-June until mid-September, coinciding neatly with the opening periods of the wealthier discothèques, beach-bars and hotels. So the nine months in the figurative winter of empty beaches and delightful walks in the hills and the three months of the tourist-summer (horrible, far too hot – a perfect time to go and visit someone elsewhere), leave us in reality with six months of perfect warm weather and splendidly quiet and peaceful life without queues, noise and people in the supermarkets wearing nothing more than sunburns and swimming trunks and shouting at the check-out staff.
This perfect period, divided as it is by the summer high-season into two, has just started. Three months, less a few days over Easter, when the tourists are still wherever tourists come from, working in some niner to fiver and thundering twice daily through the hyperborean night in uncomfortable passenger trains dreaming of some far-off break abroad where they can raise some hell. Don’t you miss it?
As we consider our good fortune to live here, at least during the major part of the year outside that brief and savage summer onslaught, we go about our unspoken business of turning our adopted pueblos into true communities.
Meanwhile, the Spanish authorities, the politicians and the bankers, have all decided that tourism is the panacea to the country’s problems. Pack ‘em in tight and lock the doors. Sex, sea, sun and sangria. And then, keeping with that particular letter from the alphabet, they can sod off back home. The recipe has worked well enough in the past twenty years and so it has to keep on going. Benidorm is a veritable wonder. A few towns across the country have actually increased their volume in the last season – well, a couple of them anyway: Isla Cristina and a place in Catalonia have been mentioned. Mojácar has nevertheless been singled out for criticism recently as having ‘obsolescent and mature’ hotels – which means that it’s time to knock down and rebuild several of our steamier tripperdomes. Who knows? Perhaps just knock them down and be done with it. Mojácar in fact has some modern establishments and it also has the Parador, a hotel which actually attracts wealthy people who spend money.
Spending money, you see, is the whole point of tourism, but don’t tell the government accountants who are much more interested in numbers rather than results.
Not that the numbers are very promising either. Hotel occupancy was down 13% in 2009 over the previous year across Spain, according to Exeltur, a travel organisation.
In fact, tourism is a shaky premise anyway, as a cheaper or brighter or jollier new place elsewhere, in Cyprus or the Dominican Republic or Croatia or Murcia, can leave your resort dead in the water from one season to the next. Tourists, particularly the ones who ‘work hard for fifty weeks a year’ are not necessarily loyal to a particular destination. They want to let their hair down. Cheaply.
A report of typhus or man-eating jellyfish can empty out a resort in a jiffy. The brush-fire that desolated Mojácar last year and crippled part of the population was considered of little importance by the town hall. However, they were frightened of losing their tourists and actually obtained funds from the Andalucian government, not to rebuild, replant or repair, but to help promote their hotels. So tourism is accepted even at the local level to be a vital yet tricky beast.
The ministry of tourism, sports, business and dental floss is aware of this and is tossing obscene amounts of money at the job of promoting Andalucía, which involves the usual tactics and targets which have been used since Hannibal showed up with his elephants. There was a huge Andalucía pavilion at the Berlin Travel Show last week, and no doubt much business was made as exhibitors from one stand went and visited those from the one next door. Videos, key-rings, postcards, calendars, a couple of clog dancers, a small bowl of traditional food (who really eats garullos in real life?) and a hundred other timewasters were all rolled out. The real business, of course, offering hotels with hundreds of beds, or chains of hotels with thousands of beds, for a slightly cheaper price than the competition, is all done elsewhere and at a different time.
The ‘experts’ try and promote new ideas, forget the tired old sol y playa, they say (which accounts for 99% of all tourism – how many package-hotels are there in Albox?); how about gastronomic tourism? (Pass the garullos, they smell delicious.)
But it’s not really working, despite the businesses that cater to the tourist trade; the hotels, discos, nick-nack shops and all doing their level best to try and increase not only the number of visitors – which is bad enough for the all-year long residents – but the length of the season as well.
It is said that every foreign home-owner (who puts a fortune into the community while yearning for peace, beauty, safety and other noble improvements) started out as a tourist. But, despite the efforts of the tourist board to the contrary, the best tourists are those who come under their own steam and search out the places, restaurants and shops which appeal to them. It’s not much use to local business when five hundred people are having a micro-waved lunch in the hotel down the road.
But let’s not worry about this small cloud on our horizon, as we now have three months when the weather is perfect, the roads are empty and the barman still remembers our name.