People cool off at the beach during the heatwave in the southeastern coastal town of Benidorm, Spain, August 2, 2018.
People cool off at the beach during the heatwave in the southeastern coastal town of Benidorm, Spain, August 2, 2018.

MADRID - A visionary mayor with a keen eye for the delights of the bikini unleashed generations of foreign tourists onto Spain's beaches. 

Pedro Zaragoza Orts transformed Benidorm on the Costa Blanca in eastern Spain from an unknown fishing village into an icon of package tourism and in the process changed Spain forever. 

In the 1950s, the Roman Catholic Church pressured then-leader General Francisco Franco to impose fines on anyone trying to sunbathe. 

However, using powerful friends close to Franco, Zaragoza drove from Benidorm to Madrid to persuade Franco of the merits of opening up the country to foreign tourism. 

Keenly aware of the need to attract foreign capital to a country which was still largely closed to the outside world, the generalissimo turned a blind eye to the objections of the Church that the sight of naked flesh might pervert the morals of Spanish men. 

FILE - People enjoy the sunshine and sun bathe on the fashionable Mediterranean beach at Benidorm, Spain in April, 1966.

A by-law was passed in Benidorm in 1956 allowing sunbathers to wear bikinis. It started a social revolution which ended in Spain becoming the most popular tourist destination in the world, after France, attracting over 80 million visitors last year. 

New challenges 

Today, Benidorm, like tourist resorts across Spain, faces a new challenge as it tries to claw its way back from the economic damage caused by COVID-19. 

As tourism accounts for 12% of GDP, it is vital to Spain's economy. 

In an effort to salvage the industry, Spain's left-wing government has said it will open up the country to foreign tourists from July 1. 

Antonio Peréz, the present day mayor of Benidorm, said last year the town attracted 16 million tourists but as it tries to recover what is left of this season, the emphasis must be on safety. 

“We are working on a series of protocols in hotels, for the beaches and in restaurants so that people can feel safe when they come here,” he told VOA in a telephone interview. 

Apartment towers sit along the promenade of the closed Levante Beach in Benidorm, June 1, 2020. Spain has begun a gradual, staged transition out of a national lockdown put in place to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Our biggest overseas market has always been the British. We are also popular with Spaniards. But this year we will have to concentrate on attracting the French, who are also a big market, and the Portuguese. Reluctance to travel by air and to make reservations may mean the British come later.” 

Peréz said cleaning hotels, making staff and customers wear masks, enforcing social distancing in restaurants, bars and even nightclubs will be essential.  

Avoiding crowding on the beaches will also be imperative. 

Known as the Manhattan of the Costa Blanca, Benidorm is famous for its skyscraper-like hotels. The close proximity of guests in these buildings is likely to prove a problem until an effective vaccine is found for COVID-19. 

A new kind of tourism 

On the island of Majorca, in the Balearics, the resort of Magaluf has for years been famous for its free spirit tourism. 

Xavier Pascuet, director of tourism for Calvia council, which oversees Magaluf, said authorities have been trying to move away from the type of tourism which has made the resort notorious and instead to encourage families to holiday in the resort. 

FILE - Tourists react as they pose for a photo at the resort of Magaluf, in Calvia town, on the Spanish Balearic island of Mallorca, June 10, 2015.

“COVID-19 could be an opportunity for us to change from the type of tourism which involves for some promoters using 'booze cruises', all-in-one deals and using semi-naked women to promote alcohol,” he told VOA by telephone from the island. 

“We will introduce a “tourist journey” in which all stages of the visit will be governed by regulations to make it safe from the airport to the hotel and the beach.” 

The Balearic Islands regional government has introduced fines for tour operators offering booze cruises or other 'all-in-one' promotions.  

Calvia council is to introduce an app so people can find beaches that are not too full. 

FILE - Police officers asks people to not sit while patrolling at the beach in Barcelona, Spain, May 20, 2020.

In Barcelona, an elaborate system of video sensors, barriers and apps will help keep the Mediterranean city's beaches from becoming congested. 

However, not all will welcome the return of tourists. 

Barcelona, like Venice and other resorts in Europe, has been the scene of protests among local residents who complained their home had been saturated by overcrowding all year round. 

“I don't think anything is going to change. We will have the same problems as before. The council will not re-think their tourism model,” Albert Mallol, of Poblenou Stand Up, a residents' group, told VOA in a telephone interview.