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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 April, 2004, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
How the Costa Brava changed the world
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine

It's the end of the 50-year holiday romance. Decades of over-development have led to some of Spain's most popular resorts falling from favour with British tourists. Yet it was the Costa Brava which first sparked our enthusiasm for taking trips abroad.

Holidaymakers in 1968, Corbis photo
The Costa Brava of 50 years ago sounds just the ticket for today's holidaymaker, who seeks sun, sand, sea and seclusion on an seemingly undiscovered beach.

The first package tour touched down in 1954, when the Catalan coast was populated not by high-rise hotels but clusters of quaint fishing villages.

"That first trip was to a village with half-a-dozen tiny hotels, a couple of bars, no banks and a storekeeper who had the sole concession to change traveller's cheques - and two beautiful beaches," says Roger Bray, the co-author of Flight to the Sun, a history of package tourism.

The Catalans - who Mr Bray describes as "perhaps the most entrepreneurial people in Spain" - quickly cottoned on to this potential goldmine, and set about developing resorts to cater for the tastes of sun-starved Brits. The Germans, too, began to flock south for the summer.

Even jerry-built hotels seemed luxurious in an era when many people still had outside toilets
Roger Bray

This opened up Spain as a destination to the first generation of holidaymakers regularly travelling abroad; Mallorca, the Canaries and the Costa del Sol soon followed suit. Torremolinos - immortalised in an unflattering Monty Python sketch - was among the earliest to cash in.

Today it is one of many striving to shake off the image of a cheap-as-chips concrete jungle - some, such as the Balearic island of Mallorca, with more success than others.

Glamour of abroad

While a two-week package holiday in the 1950s cost 35-a-person in high season - one-fifth of the average annual salary - once there, tourists would have spent very little.

On holiday in sunny Spain
Sun, sea, sand - and crowds
"It was terribly cheap - you could eat for practically nothing and drink for practically nothing," says Mr Bray, who made his first visit to the region in the early 1960s.

"And at time, Britons were going to stay in hotels much more palatial than their own homes - even the jerry-built ones seemed luxurious in an era when many people still had outside toilets."

His own holiday was spent in Calella de la Costa, a long-time favourite with holidaymakers.

"There was not much there - the huge boom in development came in the late 1960s. It had one so-called nightclub. Booze was cheap, and a very high proportion of holidaymakers got the squits because they weren't used to Spanish food."

He passed his days with excursions to see a bull fight - which wasn't un-PC in those days - and the sights of Barcelona. And, of course, hours spent baking in hot Spanish sunshine.

Bull fight in Spain
Adios to all that?
"That is one legacy of the Costa Brava - the birth of the British lobster. We didn't know about protecting ourselves from UV radiation."

Keith Betton, of the Association of British Travel Agents, says that during the 1960s and 70s, it was the norm for families to holiday in the UK.

"Then the idea of travel abroad was outrageous. I remember one boy's family went to Spain. I asked my mum if we could go, and she said: 'Oh no, it's rather common. They're just trying to show off.'"

But as disposable incomes went up and charter flights and discount packages kept costs down, mass tourism abroad came of age. By the late 1970s, some 2.5 million Britons went on package holidays a year; that had swelled to 10m by 1986.

End of an era

What early tour companies also did was set the standard for how trips abroad are marketed.

"It was all done by brochure, which even today is quite hard to get away from," Mr Betton says. "People still like to flick through glossy pages, despite the advent of the internet and no matter how much CD-Rom technology you throw at it."

UK visits abroad 2002 table
Europe is still the prime destination
What did change was how these brochures tried to tempt holidaymakers, says Mr Bray. In the 1950s, one might find an artist's impression of the resort or pictures of women in modest swimsuits, with simple taglines such as Gorgeous Costa Brava.

"The 1960s were the first time that sex was used to in travel ads. That's when brochures started to put models in bikinis on the cover."

Today, with bookings down almost a quarter on the same time last year, tour company First Choice has dropped the region from its summer brochure.

Other tour operators have expressed doubts about the region, among them Club 18-30, which began in 1965 when it took 580 fun-seekers to the Costa Brava. The company - which has a reputation for encouraging drinking and bawdiness among its clientele - has now pulled out of Lloret de Mar and Benidorm on the grounds that the resorts are not "sophisticated" enough.

But with Spain still the UK's favourite overseas destination, it seems that Brits just can't forget the Costa Brava and all of that palaver.


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