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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 August 2007, 15:35 GMT 16:35 UK
A not-so-happy return to the Med
By Julian Pettifer
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

According to English writer Samuel Johnson, "the grand object of all travel is to see the shores of the Mediterranean."

A lifeguard hut on the beach at El' Estatit
The Med remains one of the world's most popular coastlines

In his day, that expression of love was harmless enough, but in recent years, so many of us have been able to satisfy our desire to visit the Med that we have loved her almost to death.

I was lucky, I knew her at her best. Fifty years ago, in 1957, I hitchhiked my way around Spain and had the beaches almost to myself.

Then, 36 years ago, I returned to the same coastal towns to make a report for Panorama.

This is how I described what had happened to a familiar street in Torremolinos:

"...then (in the 50s) it was filled with dark little shops selling oil, wine and olives and formidable-looking corsets to peasant women with long black dresses. Donkeys were the main traffic. It was intensely Spanish. Now, it could be just about anywhere. The shops have that international chic I associate with boutiques in big international airports.

"The restaurants are anything but Spanish. There are French, Danish and Dutch "bistros" and something called "The New West End Fish and Chip Boutique de Poisson Frites". This loss of national identity has introduced a new word into the Spanish language: El Boom."

'El Boom'

And, of course, "El Boom" has continued, with all the familiar consequences.

The Med can expect to receive 230 million visitors this year making it the world's most popular tourist destination.

It is predicted that by 2020 the influx will have risen to 350 million.

Already 22,000 sq km of this once beautiful and productive coastline are covered in asphalt and concrete and the urbanisation is bound to continue.

A pub in Spain advertises fish, chips and mushy peas
This is only a passing fad, they'll all go and we'll be back where we were before
Norman Lewis quotes a local mayor in Voices of the Old Sea

During a recent visit to the Costa Brava to report for Crossing Continents, I re-read a book by Norman Lewis who is, in my opinion, one of the best travel writers of our time.

In the 1950s, Lewis lived and worked as a fisherman in a small Spanish fishing village.

He was on the Costa Brava as the first wave of tourists arrived and in his book "Voices of the Old Sea", he quotes the reaction of a small-town mayor.

"Although we've come to live off these people, we intensively dislike them. Why? Because we resent what they are doing to us. It's a kind of sickness. Now we suffer from tourists. But it will die out in the end. This is only a passing fad, they'll all go and we'll be back where we were before."

Passing fad?

How wrong can you be? As a result of that "passing fad", last year, Catalonia alone received 24 million visitors (mostly to the coast) spending 13bn euros (8.8bn) and providing work for 180,000 people.

Tourism is a vital part of the economy but it is still resented.

Talking recently to a Catalan fisherman who grew up on the Costa Brava, I discovered deep bitterness about the destruction of the landscape and the marine environment.

The Costas have become a byword for much that is bad about mass tourism: destruction of the landscape, pollution and poor planning.

And what is depressing is that little seems to have been learned from the mistakes of the past.

In my 1971 Panorama report, the pioneer underwater film maker Jacques Cousteau warned about marine pollution and the destruction of wildlife.

Beaches in places such as Montenegro are in danger of becoming over developed
Beaches like Tivat in Montenegro are fast becoming over-developed

Film star David Niven related horror stories about truck loads of rubbish washed up next to his luxury home on the Cote d'Azur.

Little has changed except the nature and durability of the waste.

According to a recent Greenpeace study, the Mediterranean suffers more pollution from discarded plastics than any other sea - almost 2,000 pieces of plastic per sq km of seabed.

I suspect that in my 72nd year, I have now done my last report on the Mediterranean. There is still much to enjoy on its shores but to visit them could by no means now be considered "the grand object of all travel."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents is broadcast on Thursday, 30 August 2007 at 1102 BST and repeated on Monday, 3 September 2007 at 2030 BST.

Crossing Continents


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