Benidorm, the mass-market Spanish seaside resort, has been the butt of British jokes for so long that its desire to apply to Unesco for world heritage status has generated a predictable mix of astonishment and mockery. What do
1960s tower blocks on the Costa Blanca have in common with the Great Barrier Reef or the pyramids of Giza?
It was a gift to cynical humour that Benidorm unveiled a draconian set of by-laws banning sex and drink on the beach just as the Unesco idea was floated.
Benidorm’s critics assumed it was courting the world’s cultural policeman by cleaning up it tawdry image as a base for British lager louts and fornicating Swedes.
A place for Benidorm on the world heritage list, however, is not half as daft as it sounds.
Blackpool in the UK also wants a listing. Both towns could qualify under Unesco’s selection criteria because each represents a vital period in the architecture and history of tourism.
Blackpool says it was the world’s first working-class resort, but it has always been domestic. Benidorm hosted the first wave of international package tours and its skyscrapers have made it the high-rise capital of the Mediterranean.
The man behind it all was the late Pedro Zaragoza Orts. When he was mayor of Benidorm in 1959 he was threatened with excommunication by the Catholic church for allowing bikinis. He drove to Madrid on his scooter and persuaded the dictator Francisco Franco that two-piece bathing suits and mass tourism were good for Spain.
So it proved. “Benidorm was the creator of the biggest industry in Spain,” says Gildo Seisdedos, urban planning professor at IE Business School.
Tourism was good for the rest of humanity as well. Between 1950 and 2007, the number of international tourists grew from 25m to 903m. Benidorm alone receives 4m visitors a year, many of them Spaniards.
“We’ve brought much to middle-class society,” María-José Montiel Vaquer, Benidorm tourism director, told the FT this week in support of a possible Unesco bid. “We’ve brought much happiness to many people.”
The idea of a world heritage listing was first floated last month by a French professor who said Benidorm’s unique collection of skyscrapers made it “the Dubai of Europe”, but Ms Montiel said Benidorm had yet to make
a formal application to Unesco. She also denied any connection between Unesco and the new by-laws.
Quite right too, for the rules – including a €750 ($950, £620) fine for beach sex – could actually undermine Benidorm’s claim to be a worthy cultural icon.
However exaggerated the claims may be about drunkenness and orgies involving badly behaved Brits on the sands of Benidorm, they are as central to the cultural imagery of late 20th century mass tourism as Stonehenge is to ancient Britain or the leaning tower is to Pisa.
By Victor Mallet,