Page last updated at 00:00 GMT, Wednesday, 24 June 2009 01:00 UK

Hard times in Spain send expats home

By Stephen Chittenden
BBC Europe reporter, Spain


The Candlin family on tough times on the Costa Blanca

The sunshine lifestyle has long tempted many Britons to uproot and make a new start on the costas of Spain. But now as the Spanish economy suffers and the opportunities there dry up, many of the expats are coming home.

Bare grey concrete beams criss-cross the sky above a building site on the Costa Blanca.

They form the skeleton of an apartment block outside Torrevieja that developers once hoped to fill with sun-tanned expats. But it stands half-built, like a stopped clock.

Instead of moving in, thousands of Britons have packed their bags and headed home, driven by the double-whammy of a strong euro and a weak local economy. Jobs have dried up, house prices have crashed and Eldorado is turning to dust.

Marion Atkins has lived and worked in Spain for over two decades, most recently as an estate agent in Torrevieja.

When we couldn't pay the rent one month and had to phone our parents for help, we realised economically it wasn't working here
Expat Jim Candlin

She drives up and down the deserted streets of a once-popular development. Many of the houses carry "For Sale" signs.

She points to one and says: "These little houses with one or two bedrooms were 120,000 euros. Now I'd be lucky to get 75,000.

"It's quiet, quiet," laments Marion. "We don't see the cars. The bars and restaurants are empty at night. Many are going out of business.

"This is all because the expats are going home and the holidaymakers aren't coming. And the biggest group is the British."

Living apart

There are no official figures for the number of Britons going home, because nobody is counting.

But Spain is certainly counting its unemployed, up to 17% with more than four million out of work. And that has a painful effect for the Britons who prospered during Spain's boom times.

Jim and Caireen Candlin met in Spain, married in Gibraltar and decided to raise their young children on the Costa Brava.

Marion Atkins
Estate agent Marion Atkins is quitting Spain to run a pub in Britain

Aberdeen-born Caireen says: "I think Spain is ideal for bringing up children. That's why I'm staying here while he goes back to the UK."

Jim is heading home to retrain as an electrician after building work dried up.

He says: "We've both worked for firms that have gone bust in the past year.

"When we couldn't pay the rent one month and had to phone our parents for help, we realised economically it wasn't working here. We couldn't carry on like that."

So now the couple have decided to leave the area, and possibly the country.

Like Jim and Caireen, Barnaby Griffin and his wife Rebecca have been forced to live apart by a search for work.

Rebecca returned after two years in Orihuela Costa to do temping in London, while Barnaby stays on as a performer in the local bars.

"All my friends our age are struggling," he says.

"People talk about living the dream but all it seems to be is sunshine, cheap cigs and wine. This area had low wages anyway and we're fed up living hand to mouth."

'Losing heart'

But not everyone is heading home. Adrian Wrigglesworth moved to San Pedro del Pinatar nine years ago, and is staying put during the British exodus.

"I must admit you do lose a lot of good friends," he says. "But if the worst came to the worst, if I became poor and miserable I'd rather do it in the sun."

The former salesman from Yorkshire has managed a local solar power business, and is now planning clothes-swapping "swishing" parties. He has a surprising role model for business - pop star Madonna.

"You need to adapt and improve and change all the time. Every six months Madonna changes and she's successful. And that's what businesses should do here."

But after more than two decades in Spain, estate agent Marion Atkins has decided to leave.

"At the end of this month I'm hoping to manage a pub in the Midlands." she says.

"I've got my house here, my cats and my friends. But I'm just sitting here doing nothing. This place is losing its heart, it really is sad."

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