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Malaga weighs new tourism drive against protection of heritage

Visitors walk the red carpet in Malaga to spot film celebrities

Malaga's film festival has been taking place this week driving increased tourism to the city. The red carpet in the city's Calle Larios has been directing visitors around the pedestrianised central district, encouraging glimpses of the historic sites of the Catedral del la Encarnacion de Malaga, Alcazaba and Teatro Romano de Malaga, which pay tribute to the city's ancient history spanning nearly 3,000 years.

The eleven-day event showcases the best of Spanish cinema and this year - the 27th anniversary of the Malaga Film Festival - has been attracting crowds in their thousands. Organisers want to highlight the development of Malaga as an open and cultural city, but with that comes an acceptance that tourism needs to be managed carefully to avoid over-crowding.

Official data from the National Statistics Institute for 2023 recorded 12.2 million international arrivals to Andalucia, meaning that tourism numbers returned to pre-pandemic levels last year. Airlines have increased their flights to Malaga and visitors are opting for holiday apartments as well as luxury hotels, which are available in the city and along the Costa del Sol. However, the city authorities are now becoming concerned that they might have an over-tourism problem similar to Venice, Italy.

Arrivals at Malaga's airport increase dramatically over the summer months

This article looks at how Malaga, which is the sixth largest metropolitan area in Spain, has re-invented itself as a 'city of culture', how it is now tackling sustainability issues and protecting heritage - all of which may affect the long-term positive reputation of the city.

In the early 2000s the city authorities began a campaign to re-launch Malaga as a tourist destination, which in previous decades, had been a place that few travelers wanted to visit. The image of the city was one of limited sites to explore and long lines of high rise buildings scarring the coast. Now the city has thirty museums including one dedicated to celebrating the birthplace of Picasso, as well as hotels designed to mirror the architecture of traditional and historic dwellings.

Among those museums, ARS Malaga shows temporary exhibitions housed in the former Bishop's Palace next to the main facade of the cathedral. It was taken over by the local Unicaja Foundation in late 2019. The Carmen Thyssen Museum holds part of the larger Thyssen art collection with a focus on 19th century Spanish art, while The Pompidou Centre showcases avant garde art on loan from the Pompidou in Paris. The Museum of Malaga is the largest museum in Andalucia and the fifth largest in Spain holding archaeological finds and Spanish art, largely painted in Malaga.

ARS Malaga in a former Bishop's Palace, next to the city's cathedral - the latter founded in the 15th century by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain

Carmen Thyssen Museum, Malaga

Since the 2000s, Malaga promoted itself intensively, but now advertising has stopped due to the fear that over-tourism will spoil the sites, squares and narrow winding streets. People who live in Malaga fear the increase in holiday lets, reducing the number of affordable homes.

This week, the Malaga news service, SUR in English, reported on a protest by local people wanting to raise 30,000 euros on a crowdfunding site, saying they are angry with city authorities giving permission for a new tall tower to be built as a luxury hotel in the Port of Malaga.

They claim it will obscure the view of the historic lighthouse - La Farola de Malaga - and will have a large impact on the heritage and landscape of the city. The funds are needed to launch an appeal against the project. The University of Malaga's academics Professor Matias Merida and lecturer Isabel Ruiz Mora are also behind the campaign, saying the project is potentially in breach of Andalusian planning law and environmental legislation. The hotel is designed be built to a height of 135 meters on the esplanade of the Levante dock and is being supported by Qatari investment fund Al Alfia in collaboration with the Hesperia hotel chain.

So how can Malaga develop its tourism industry without descending into planning conflicts? Malaga's protest group campaigning against the hotel has until the middle of April to raise sufficient funds to take the case to a 'contentious administrative court'. It will be the second appeal against the project, started originally by the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Telmo - an organisation formed by prestigious individuals from the world of art and architecture, according to SUR in English.

Meanwhile, the city authorities say that to avoid the general problem of over-crowding, they want fewer tourists who stay longer, and who perhaps are enticed away from the centre for walking and nature trails, reducing the over-crowding while emphasizing sustainability issues. Those holiday companies eager to promote this enthuse about the numerous whitewashed villages to visit, connected with endless hiking trails, and with mountains overlooking a never-ending coastline and panoramic canyons.

A report by McKinsey & Company last year, 'Next stop for Spanish tourism excellence: sustainability' noted the need for Spain to continue to act more intensively on climate change goals. It stated:

'The country’s natural attractions and cultural assets draw crowds from around the world—making many of its communities reliant on tourism. Pre-pandemic, Spain was the second-largest tourism destination in the world, drawing 84 million visitors in 2019 who brought over €92 billion in revenue...The sector (now) faces physical and economic threats due to climate change...The Mediterranean basin is getting warmer: the number of days above 37°C in southern Spain is expected to double by 2050 and rising temperatures increase the risk of drought, water stress, wildfires, and floods.

'Of course, Spain’s tourism sector cannot combat climate change alone. But this backdrop underscores the urgency to act. Globally, tourism is a significant contributor to emissions, and Spain can play a role in emissions reduction...Spain can set itself apart by prioritizing sustainability, including environmental issues such as water usage, plastic waste, carbon emissions, and social issues such as how tourism affects local communities. Globally, travelers are becoming more aware and are seeking out vacations with less impact on the environment and on local communities. Sustainability could become a key differentiator.

'Furthermore, sustainable travel could draw discerning premium travelers who will likely be willing to pay for offerings that uphold their values. But efforts to draw these travelers will need to extend beyond marketing and involve real operational changes. Gen Z travelers, in particular, don’t care what tourism businesses say about their sustainability efforts, they want to see it in practice. Gen Zs, who typically have a heightened awareness of climate change, are looking for eco-friendly accommodation options. Skift found that 38 percent of Gen Zs across the world would consider staying in green accommodation on their next holiday, compared to the 33 percent response rate of those over 25.7'

Above: Malaga has worked at its shade cover in parks and gardens for residents and visitors, while below: wide pedestrian routes for walkers, scooters and cyclists, adds to its sustainability credentials

On sustainability issues Malaga has taken charge of traffic issues by pedestrianising streets in the centre of the city which tackles pollution both for residents and holiday makers. Actions have been taken to improve noise levels within the framework of the 'Strategic Noise Map'. Noise was monitored in 41 locations through acoustic measurements and citizen surveys.

Work has also been carried out to install smart metering of water with 140,000 meters installed. Odour control and treatment in wastewater pumping stations and plants has been tackled, using a new biotrickling treatment system that reuses activated carbon.

Nevertheless, it is reported that the city is facing a severe water shortage. Authorities warned last year that Malaga had only one year's supply of water left if the same rainfall was recorded over the months to come. There is expectation that the Aljaima and Fahala wells in the Cartana area will pick up the much needed supply to the city.

One important question is on the balancing of Malaga's heritage with the future for tourism in the city. Malaga's bars which offered venues for displays of flamenco, largely closed during the pandemic in 2019. Some bars are opening again in the city but the authorities are so concerned that flamenco will becoming a dying art that they have added flamenco to the school curriculum.

More difficult to digest for some tourists, is the continued existence of bull fights in the city and its enduring heritage. La Malagueta bullring was opened in 1876 and has been the popular location of many bull fights over the century. It remains one of the most important spaces for bullfighting in Spain.

Last year, it was reported that people flooded the streets in Malaga holding placards with messages reading 'No More Bullfights' and 'End Animal Torment'. Defenders of bullfighting point to the heritage of the spectacle, saying that rules for matadors performance routines were laid down in the 17th century and the sport is a traditional part of Spanish culture. However, the Animalist Party's Vice President, Cristina Garcia, spoke at the rally last year in Malaga, stating the will to dismantle the framework of 'legalised animal abuse'.

Statistics suggest that it is largely tourists from the United States that are still willing to attend bullfighting events, because bullfights are still legal there. It is less likely that visitors from England will enjoy such a spectacle due to awareness of legislation in the UK against blood sports. However, while ticket sales continue and government subsidies are paid to ranchers in Spain, to rear bulls for the arena, it is more than likely that bullfighting will continue.

Last year, Spain's first animal welfare law was passed mainly to protect domestic animals from abuse, but notably it does not cover bullfighting. It remains to be seen whether Malaga's bullfighting events deter tourists from visiting the city or continue as a visitor attraction. It is reported by animal rights campaigners that most attendees watching a bullfight do not want to return to watch the suffering of bulls, who have been recorded as severely beaten and starved before the event and crying from pain during the fight.

Approximately 35,000 bulls are killed in bullfights in Spain every year. Tourists are advised by anti-bullfight campaigners to notify their travel agents, hotels and tour companies that they do not wish to attend these events, in the hope that the economic benefit from such 'entertainment' dries up.

Below: Malaga's bullring close to the port and city centre


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