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Saturday, 8 June, 2002, 12:08 GMT 13:08 UK
Benidorm climbs ever upwards
View of Benidorm
Benidorm now has the highest building in Spain

Now in his 80s, Pedro Zaragoza may have earned a restful retirement. But this former mayor of Benidorm has just enrolled in journalism school.

He's been working as a lawyer for the last 30 years, since leaving local politics, and thought it was time for a change of direction.

holidaymakers in Spain
Benidorm: 'It had sun, it had a beach, it had sea'
Every part of his being, from his twinkling eyes behind the glasses, to his big white moustache, is energetic and alert. For a short person, he has the personality and the resonant voice of a giant.

And modern-day Benidorm, with its sky-scrapers and booming tourist industry, is all thanks to him.

It was in the year 1953 that Senor Zaragoza decided to transform Benidorm from a tiny fishing village into a successful tourist resort.

It had sun, it had a beach, it had sea; what it didn't have was visitors. Few people in Spain had enough to eat in those days, let alone take holidays, so he needed to attract foreigners.

And he knew that the dark and depressing countries of northern Europe, with their long winters and unreliable summers, were an ideal target for the Big Sell.

Bikini ban

But Roman Catholic Spain had a strict bikini-ban in place which no-one in government dared breach for fear of Excommunication.

In order to promote the idea of sun-bathing and swimming for both sexes, the mayor of Benidorm needed the ban lifted. And Spain's former dictator General Franco was the only man who could do it.

General Franco
Franco lifted the ban on Bikinis, in Benidorm
So Pedro got on his bike - literally, it was a Vespa scooter - and rattled 8 hours by road until he got to Madrid.

During the audience with Franco, he remembers looking down with horror at his oil-stained trousers, and not being able to do anything about it.

Franco lifted the ban - and the rest, as they say, is history.

The population of Benidorm was tiny in those days, fewer than 2,000 people, many of whom were very worried at the beginning, about what mass tourism would bring.

He called the few friends and colleagues who worked with him the 'Grupo de Locos', the group of lunatics, because of the vision they had, and how hard they worked.

'The tank'

King Juan Carlos of Spain called him 'El tanque', the tank, because he just went straight ahead, no matter what obstacles lay in his path.

So if anyone should be blamed for Benidorm's skyscrapers and tower-blocks, which obscure from many angles the dramatic sweep of its golden beach, and the stunning Mediterranean sea, it's Pedro Zaragoza: it was his idea to develop the town upwards, instead of outwards - 'Urban concentration', as he called it, instead of Urban sprawl.

More environmentally-friendly, he argued, and less wasteful of the countryside, which as the evolution of Benidorm has shown, can be dedicated to golf-courses and theme-parks for tourists far more profitably than agriculture.

So when I was invited to sample Benidorm's newest hotel, I wasn't too surprised to find that it was boastfully presenting itself as 'Spain's tallest building' and 'Europe's tallest hotel'.

The whole idea of Benidorm it seemed, from a number of people I spoke to, was to give as many visitors as possible a view of the sea - and this was the easiest and the cheapest way of doing it.

"It's the democratisation of tourism", explained the man currently in charge of promoting the industry at the town hall, "In Benidorm we bring the privileges of the rich to the masses", he said.

But as I waited patiently nine minutes to get up to my room in the over-worked lift, I found it surprising to consider, after all the warnings after 11 September, that tall buildings hadn't gone out of fashion altogether.

Terrorist threat

I asked the hotel's director if the threat of terrorism had changed people's attitudes, he told me, with all the gravitas he could muster: "We have had a serious problem here, ever since we opened... If we give someone a room on the 10th floor, they want to be on the 20th, if we give them one on the 30th, they want to be on the 40th, and so on... Everyone wants to be higher up".

A beach in Benidorm
Benidorm is developing upwards
I myself had thrown caution to the winds in coming here.

Not only President Bush's warning that al-Qaeda could strike again, possibly in Europe, but also the Basque separatist group ETA's outspoken declaration of a summer bombing campaign on the Mediterranean coast, specifically targeting Spain's lucrative tourist industry, were playing on my mind.

But looking out over the clear blue sea, I soon felt Senor Zaragoza's vision soothing me.

This peaceful view felt as if it were mine - all mine - and that, surely, is the beauty of a sky-scraper.

See also:

01 May 02 | Business
30 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
23 Aug 01 | Business
10 Jul 01 | Wales
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