Benidorm. I first learned that word in the UK, as a shortcut for everything that’s wrong with the travel industry. High-rise tower blocks, pissed-up Brits, vomiting and racist insults. Tourists expecting everyone to understand English as they clamour for pubs, football and F.E.Bs.*All while searing their skin under a slice of Spanish sun.
And that was just the start.
Unsurprisingly, Benidorm wasn’t on my wishlist. Then, last summer, the tourist board of Valencia invited me to their spectacular region. I danced at the Benicassim FIB festival, dined on the world’s best paella and watched in deafened wonder as Formula One cars zoomed around the track.
I also got bussed around Benidorm. With over 300 skyscrapers, English signs for fish ‘n’ chips and adverts for sex shops in plain sight, my first impressions reinforced every prejudice I’d packed before I’d arrived.
Then I met Maria.
Far from being an 18 year old expat just waiting for the next wet T-shirt competition to come along, Maria was quiet, dignified and keen to describe the place she called home.
“We are the largest tourist resort in Europe,” she said, revealing the gulf between us. She thought this was a highlight; I did not.
“We have over 1.3 million visitors from England each year.”
Another reason for me to stay away.
“And we have no plans to restrict that number.”
Oh, when will this end?
The bus crawled along the seafront, past mustard-yellow sand, a rabble of inflatable plastic and a procession of burnt, bloated bodies. The zebra crossing forced us to pause.
“The ramps you see running down to the water,” said Maria, highlighting the industrial scars that littered the beach, “are disabled access ramps.
“In Benidorm, we are proud to be one of the few places where people in wheelchairs can enjoy the beach and dip their toes into the sea.”
And there it was. One little sentence, one huge revelation. I sat up straight and looked at Benidorm, and myself, with new eyes.
I saw the white-washed church with its ribbons of fairy lights. I noticed the scallop shells marking the pilgrim’s path to Santiago de Compostela. I saw families gathered together, enjoying time away from stress and work.
“People say that we have ruined Benidorm,” Maria continued. “But it’s not true. For example, only 30% of a plot of land can be built upon by law, to allow space for gardens, views and parking.”
By then, my mind had drifted to another place and time. To Oman, one of my favourite countries. I had loved how untouched it was. Driving through deserts and not seeing a soul, camping unrestricted on the soft white beaches, clambering through oases with only a few locals for company.
Head south from the capital Muscat and you’ll find a sink-hole delving deep into the creamy-toffee earth. You’ll also see it in this blog’s logo. When I visited in 2005, a lone staircase teetered down to the water but work on a handrail had begun.
I wonder what it looks like today. Perhaps the handrail is complete. Perhaps there’s an escalator or even a lift, with safety fences all around and a plastic gift shop ready to overcharge.
All these things will detract from its beauty, yet nearly all will increase its access. It’s one of travel’s biggest dilemmas.
Who has the right to see the world? Only the young, fit, and adventurous? Or everyone. The old, the infirm, and those afraid of other cultures and languages?
Back in Benidorm, I still didn’t have the answer. After all, sex shops and crowds crop up in Copenhagen and London as much as they do here. And why do people swoon over the New York skyline, yet slam the skyscraper sunset in Benidorm?
Perhaps you see what you expect to see. I’d heard terrible things about Benidorm; I’d heard nothing about Oman. Then again, perhaps I need to accept that the world cannot develop on my terms but should be changed to fit the majority.
Or perhaps there’s room for everyone. Room for Benidorm to welcome the world and room for me to travel to places less accommodating.
*F.E.B = Full English Breakfast