Benidorm & A Cultural Awakening

By Abi King | Spain

Apr 04
Photo of multicoloured Benidorm Sign

Benidorm, Spain

Europe’s Largest Tourist Resort

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.

Benidorm Mannekin PisAnd 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.”

Sex Shop Sign Benidorm

A Benidorm Welcome

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.

And there it was. One little sentence, one huge revelation.

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.

Benidorm Church At Night

Benidorm At Night

“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?

All these things will detract from its beauty, yet nearly all will increase its access.

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.

Or perhaps there’s another way. What do you think?

 *F.E.B = Full English Breakfast

New York Skyline - Black and white

New York Skyscrapers: Bewitching or Boorish?


Benidorm Beach & Skyline

Benidorm Skyline: Beautiful or Boorish?

Arantxa April 4, 2011

I love your pics.
There is always something hidden in this mass tourism places, a treasure waiting to be discovered between buildings, is up to us to look for them or not.

Susie Forbes April 4, 2011

Interesting and thought provoking article – thanks :-)

Jools April 5, 2011

That’s an interesting angle Abi. My dad’s mobility is quite restricted so they are always looking for suitable options. Whether I’ll be able to persuade him that Benidorm’s an option I’m not sure, but I’ll be a bit more open minded about it myself now.

Dan Wedgwood April 7, 2011

I worked in a 24 hour bar and take-away / restaurant when I was 17 (so years ago now) and saw the worker’s side of Benidorm… Back then I have to say that wasn’t a particularly pretty sight, and when you’re on the pint pulling side of a bar working 9pm til 6am you see stuff ranging from comedy all the way to properly horrific! (We were on the walk home for many and still on duty). As you said about the skyline though, it’s the same stuff that happens all over the world in a lot of other cities, and sometimes it’s not even British people!

But I have to say that while it’s not my kind of place, even back then over a decade ago you could still see why it’s a popular place for that kind of family beach holiday or piss up in a group – there’s some good spots in amongst it, and a really suprisingly strong community spirit among all the people that work out there… We got looked after really well right from day 1.

Plus as you say a lot of facilities for families… If anything when I was there the families knew why they’d gone to Benidorm and were happy with what they found, but they had no idea why I was there – looking rather younger than 17 at that point I had a lot of Mums asking me if my mum and dad knew where I was because they’d thought I’d run away! I’d like to go back one day and visit some of people I met but I think there’s still no chance I’d go back into any of the nightclubs, or bars named after footballers…


Andrea April 9, 2011

Beautiful piece. I really love that they care so much about older or handicapped people having access. It is alway wonderful to me when my own prejudices and stereotypes are challenged while travelling. As for Oman, it is one of the places we are considering for our next long-term expat stint, so I’m glad to hear you like it so much.

    Abi King July 5, 2011

    Love Oman. Love it, love it, love it. Let me know when you get there!

Mikeachim April 9, 2011

Gorgeous piece, Abi.

I have to wonder what Benidormians think about the Brit sitcom “Benidorm”, which reinforces every awful, dreadful, cringeworthy stereotype you mentioned…

Way too much to think about for one comment, but…your thoughts remind me of my reaction to the improvement / blandifying of a disused railway line in my home town. I used to cycle along it as a kid, thrilled with every bump that swooped by heart into my mouth and made at least one wheel leave the ground. And I loved the harebrained bit at the end of the track where the line plunged down a muddy grass bank and onto the modern road that cut through it. Came off a few times, once gave my knees a really nasty skinning, but that just added to the anticipation somehow…

Then the council came in. As the official start of the Trans Pennine Trail it needed to be accessible for wheelchairs. So they shaved all the bumps out, trimmed back the encroaching trees, laid down tarmac and turned the end of the track into a wide path that switchbacked lazily down the slope 3 or 4 times, with a rail all the way.

I was incensed exactly until the day I saw someone in a wheelchair delightedly using it, at which point I felt ashamed.

But there’s still part of me that kicks up a fuss when I see it. A part of me I have problems justifying without sounding like a jerk. It says things like “adventurous travel – and let’s face it, all travel should be adventurous in some way – is all about physical and mental hardship – you’re *meant* to find it difficult, inaccessible. You’re meant to be daunted, and that is why it’s such a rush when you overcome it. If it’s easy, it’s worthless.”

As important as it is to have places that everyone can access, it’s also important to have places that *everyone* finds a struggle to get around. There needs to be a line, and it needs to be fought over. Because exclusion, like elitism, often isn’t flat-out denying, it’s setting a challenge for people to enjoy the thrill of overcoming.

As I say, when this is applied to a practical setting, it gets sticky. But as a general principle….it needs picking over, to make sure we’re not dumbing things down.

Did I say I loved reading this? Yeah.

Fred Bloggs June 20, 2011

I don’t think the TV show depicted Benidorm too badly. Just check out the Benidorm forum on TripAdvisor and hotel reviews, you’ll see how many stereotypes of Benidorm are alive and kicking: non-disabled people using mobility scooters, drunken stag & hen parties, loads of British pubs, pickpockets, prostitutes near hotels etc.

The TV show actually increased bookings to Benidorm, so read into that what you will !

    Abi King July 5, 2011

    The TV show increased bookings? That is something to puzzle over…

beni reguler July 1, 2011

we go to benidorm every year our lad used to work there and is thinking of going back. i dont know why you found it so revolting you couldnt have had a good look round or spoke to many families who go back year after year. we have never had any trouble with anyone most of our holiday is spent wondering around the resort during the day or on the beach then at night there is so much to do i couldnt mention it all but there is a lot more than just pubs and yobs as you seem to think like good restaraunts of nearly every nationality top class shows family theamed bars that cater for everyone. there are bus rides to beutiful local towns and villages .there are theme parks live concerts as well as plenty of great tribute bands and still so much more to mention maybe we just like to enjoy ourselves..

Abi King July 5, 2011

Wow. I’ve been really impressed by the variety and quality of the comments posted here, which is why I’ve put off replying for so long…I wanted to have something useful to say.

Now that I’ve waited, it hasn’t made any difference. I still have mixed feelings on the matter.

@Mike, I love how you’ve described the need for a challenge with the shame of feeling elitist – and I guess that ties in with @Beni Reguler’s comment about “wanting to enjoy” themselves.

I do want to enjoy myself when I travel (let’s face it, ideally, all of the time!) but it’s clear that different people enjoy different things – and that’s OK. @Beni – you’re right, I did only speak to locals rather than families who travel to Benidorm regularly, simply because circumstances meant I was pushed for time. It would have been interesting to speak to someone like yourself. Some things you mention I may have loved – others, again, simply aren’t my thing.

I’m still mulling this one over – but thank you to everyone who took the time to comment and who gave me something to mull over.

Comments are closed