Promise Of Jobs Lures Construction Onto Famous Spanish Beach

Valdevaqueros is one of Spain's last unspoiled beaches, but it's slated to disappear soon under a wave of development. The development promises to create jobs, but is more construction what Spain needs now?

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In Spain, high rise hotels and apartments mar much of the country's Mediterranean coast. That's the result of a decades' long construction boom that's now gone bust. There's one famous beach near Spain's southern tip that's been spared that kind of development until now. Lauren Frayer reports from a beach consistently ranked among the top 10 in Southern Europe.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This is one of the windiest places in the world, Valdevaqueros Beach at the Straits of Gibraltar. Until recently, nobody wanted to vacation here. The wind is so strong, your book will fly out of your hands if you try to read on the beach here.

PALOMA LOPEZ: (Speaking foreign language)

FRAYER: It's probably the number one spot in Europe for migratory birds, raptors, gliders and storks, says Paloma Lopez(ph), a local park ranger. On some days, you'll see tens of thousands of storks riding the wind over Valdevaqueros. The sky turns white. Compare that with the rest of Spain's coast where once pristine beaches have been ruined by high rises.

The wind saved Valdevaqueros from over development until wind surfers and kite surfers discovered it. Chris Zia(ph) taught wind surfing in Hawaii and Mauritius before moving here.

CHRIS ZIA: It's great on the water, yes. The spot itself is amazing. I think it's hard to compete really with Tarifa.

FRAYER: To accommodate tens of thousands of sporty new tourists, Tarifa's mayor has approved plans to build 1400 hotel rooms and 350 apartments on the Valdevaqueros, one of Spain's last virgin beaches.

MAYOR JUAN ANDRES GIL GARCIA: I am Juan Andres Gil Garcia. I'm the mayor of the Tarifa city.

FRAYER: The mayor says he loves nature, but he also has to worry about the jobless rate in Tarifa, which is pushing 40 percent. He says this hotel complex would create more than 1,000 jobs.

GARCIA: (Speaking foreign language)

FRAYER: It's difficult to strike a balance between conservation and economic development, he says. We want to conserve this natural paradise, but we desperately need those jobs. Here in Tarifa's open air market, fishmongers are selling this morning's fresh catch. I approach them about the Valdevaqueros development and I can't find anyone who's against it.

CARMEN MORENO BLANCO: (Speaking foreign language)

FRAYER: The truth is, I think it's stupendous, says Carmen Moreno Blanco(ph) in her market stall. It'll bring more work for us locals. The development would be 700 yards from the shoreline on the other side of Valdevaqueros' sand dunes. The mayor says it'll be an eco-friendly design, but no plans have yet been made public.

ITOR GALAN: Actually, I don't care how they build it. Even if it was the most sustainable hotel in Europe, it shouldn't be there.

FRAYER: Environmental biologist Itor Galan(ph) has helped gather nearly 100,000 signatures on a petition to block the project. Activists have appealed to the European Union and opposition lawmakers have floated an alternative, a hotel in Tarifa's city center instead, maybe even with free bikes to ride out to Valdevaqueros Beach. Antonio Munoz(ph) is with the group Ecologists in Action.

ANTONIO MUNOZ: (Speaking foreign language)

FRAYER: I've been an ecologist and activist for 27 years over which time I've seen Spain reclassify protected natural parks one by one into land for development, he says. I am from Tarifa, from Valdevaqueros and I will not allow them to sell the sand of my home. Munoz has just won a small reprieve. The regional government has temporarily frozen all waterfront development, including Valdevaqueros as it sorts through the mess of half-built projects left over from Spain's housing bubble.

Dozens of politicians have been indicted for alleged kickbacks tied to those projects so Spain's fight against corruption is keeping construction on Valdevaqueros Beach in limbo for now. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Spain.

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