The Costa del Sol as we know it now, first saw light in the early 1950s, when a group of pioneering jet-setters chose this southern region of Mediterranean Spain as the perfect spot to spend the summer – and increasing – the whole year.
The likes of Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe were attracted to the region for its sunshine, its beautiful scenery between beaches, coves and mountains, and the easygoing yet powerful Andalusian culture that still pervaded the region so seductively. Like latter-day adventurers on a Grand Tour, these mostly upper class visitors from northern Spain, northern Europe and North America coined the name ‘Costa del Sol’ – a term that was to become a complete concept rather than a mere geographical description.
Though the Costa del Sol extends almost 150 kilometres from Sotogrande in the west to Nerja in the east, Marbella has always been the centre-point of the region. In this there is no disrespect towards Málaga, the regional capital, for the city stands somewhat apart from the ‘costa’ that extends either side of it. Once upon a time tourism in the region focused on winter visitors to Málaga’s seaside area, but by the 1950s this kind of tourism had been supplanted by the up-and-coming summer variety that has swept all before it since the 50s and made the Costa del Sol one of the most emblematic and popular tourist destinations in the world.
A coast of transition
The early pioneers that arrived here encountered fields of sugarcane dotted with sleepy little fishing villages such as Marbella, Fuengirola, Estepona and Nerja. The richer towns had historically lain inland, but it was the transition from fishing and agriculture to tourism that would make the coastal region flourish like it hadn’t done since the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans shipped wheat, wine and olive oil from here, in addition to the fish conserves whose factory foundations can still be admired in places like Almuñecar.
Having focused on Marbella, the early creators of the Costa del Sol gathered around them a glamorous set of actors, artists, aristocrats and business tycoons. For the first two decades of its existence, the Costa del Sol was to be largely their private playground, later expanding with the addition of the glamorous Puerto Banús marina in 1971. Gradually, though, the coast became more accessible to other visitors from northern climes, and while Marbella and Sotogrande were still largely dominated by villas, luxury hotels and golf courses, places like Fuengirola and Torremolinos developed a more affordable form of tourism typified by tall family hotels and bucket-and-spade visitors.
More and more of the annual summer visitors dreamed of spending the whole year in these parts, and as a growing number realised this ambition the erstwhile towns and tourist resorts began expanding along the coastal stretch. The number of marinas, beach clubs and luxury resort hotels grew, with the 64 top-class golf courses making this the golf hub of Europe that is often nicknamed the ‘Costa del Golf’. The increasing number of permanent residents also led to the growth of business centres and professional services, as well modern shopping centres, designer boutique outlets and international schools that prepare students for university entrance both locally and abroad.
At the core of the region’s popularity is the fact that it boasts Californian or Australian temperatures and lifestyles yet within a 2-hour flying range from most European capitals. With over 300 sunny days a year and an annual temperature of around 30-16ºC it is easy to see why people are drawn to this corner of Europe. Today, the Costa del Sol receives over 10 million visitors per year, and the recent expansion of Málaga Airport – already the number one flight destination out of the UK – shows the region expects more in the future. The terminal space was increased from 135,000m2 to 385,000, while the new runway will almost double the capacity of hourly flights from 37 to 72.
A new phase
With the 700,000 inhabitants of Málaga city included, the Costa del Sol is home to over a million people. While tourism and property remain primary sectors in the region the likes of Marbella, Estepona and Fuengirola have evolved into cosmopolitan modern towns that are ready to diversify their economic base and embrace the 21st century. The announcement that a major cruise terminal, marina, luxury hotel and commercial centre will be built on the eastside of Marbella has created much enthusiasm, but equally important is the development of other factors such as a monorail and trolley bus network that will link the coast’s towns and resorts, pedestrian and cycle paths, parks and green zones, car-free town centres and also the emergence of creative, professional and high-tech service sectors to draw on the region’s unique human resources and broaden the economic base in what has been described as an exciting new phase in the history of the Costa del Sol.