The First Spanish Seaside Resorts
The tradition of the seaside holiday first originated in the 19th century, aided by some discreet royal patronage. John Walton and Jenny Smith tell the story.
Most British people associate holidays in Spain with the quest for guaranteed sunshine on the Mediterranean beaches. This common north European assumption is based on the package tour boom of the 1960s onwards, which turned tourism into Spain's leading foreign currency earner. But the Spanish tourism and holiday industries have a much longer pedigree than this.
One strand with firm mid-nineteenth century roots has been the 'cultural tourism' which took, and still takes, visitors to Castile or Andalucìa in pursuit of art, architecture, bullfighting, flamenco, festivals and the 'soul of Spain'. Much less familiar is the Spanish tradition of spa and sea-bathing holidays, mingling the pursuit of health and pleasure, which has catered mainly for home-grown demand and which developed impressively from the second half of the nineteenth century. This has been concentrated into northern Spain, especially the Basque country and the coastal provinces to the west. It was here, rather than on the Costa Brava, that the Spanish seaside holiday industry originated: and the enduring results can be seen in the cities of San Sebastián and Santander and in many smaller seaside resorts along the Biscay shores.
Sea-bathing in Spain, as an organised and commercially-run activity, began in San Sebastián in the late 1820s or early 1830s, a century later than in England. By the time San Sebastian was beginning to attract bathers, Brighton was already long established as the first large specialised seaside resort in the modern world, with a population in 1831 of over 40,000. A pattern of lesser resorts was forming, especially in the
south and east within easy reach of London, and seaside resorts were to feature prominently among the fastest-growing English towns of the nineteenth century. Spain could not match the scale, pace and ubiquity of English seaside resorts, but nevertheless the rise of her north coast resorts was an impressive phenomenon.