Today, Benidorm is a thriving, bustling tourist destination. Indeed, the sheer amount of tourists each year make it the third busiest destination in Europe. The only two which get more traffic are London and Paris. Benidorm holidays are known for providing incredible beaches, thriving nightlife and towering hotels, but it wasn’t always this way.
Until Pedro Zaragoza Orts, the protagonist of our tale, came along, Benidorm was a small, coastal fishing village. It had a wonderful climate and magnificent mountains, but seemed destined to remain beautiful yet unknown.
In 1950, Zaragoza was appointed mayor. Recognising the potential of the place, and knowing what developments had been occurring in northern Europe, he set about turning it into a tourist hotspot.
He began by arranging for water to be pumped to the village from ten miles away, ensuring a large enough supply for his vision. The next step was to get in touch with major airlines in northern Europe and start encouraging the holiday makers. The slogan “sun and beach” was sent out, and planeloads of British tourists began to arrive. Cheap holidays to Benidorm were the latest tourist magnet, it seemed.
As more and more tourists flooded in, they brought with them an item that had become normal and commonplace in northern Europe, but in Franco’s Spain caused uproar and went against the traditional Catholic values that were being enforced. The bikini hit Spain, but wearing it was forbidden. In 1953 though, Zaragoza allowed bikinis to be worn in Benidorm, saying that “you couldn’t stop it.”
The backlash was amazing. Members of the Civil Guard grappled with women in bikinis, escorting them from beaches and public areas, and Zaragoza was threatened with excommunication by the local archbishop. Until one morning, at 6AM, Zaragoza set off on his Vespa, making the eight hour trip to Madrid to ask Franco to give his permission for bikinis to be worn in Benidorm.
“I changed my shirt,” he says, “but I went in to the General with my trousers spattered with motor oil… He backed me, and the bikini stayed.”
But more liberal fashion policies aren’t the only reason for Benidorm’s success. In 1954, Zaragoza created and enforced the ‘Plan de General de Ordenación’, which ensured every building site would have an area of land that wouldn’t be used for construction, but must be maintained as a relatively plant-filled area, purely for leisure. This meant that Benidorm avoided going the way of other cities and being entirely swallowed by grey skyscrapers, and could maintain its lush, green appearance.
Benidorm’s success today, and the sheer volume of holidays to Benidorm every year, is a testament to the work Zaragoza did, and his example was followed all across Spain. He went on to become a director in multiple companies, as well as president of his province’s council, a civil governor and a member of Parliament, but Benidorm will remain his legacy.