Sunday, 3 January 2016

The church, the muzak and the tourist dollar...

Vejer's church is the ultimate landmark
This blog doesn’t aim to be controversial, but something has been preying on my mind for a while, and maybe this is the place to voice my doubts. 
  Half way through last summer, feeling exhausted and in need of peace, I decided to pay a visit to Vejer’s beautiful church, La Iglesia del Divino Salvador. I can see the church from my roof terrace; its bells chime melodically through my day, marking the passing hours. I love the interior, and find something new there to enjoy every time I visit.

A calm interior

  But this time, something was wrong. Instead of the comfortable smell of old incense, my nostrils were assailed by the odour of fresh paint. My favourite painting, ‘The Martyrdom of San Sebastian’, was missing. Worst of all, through the air came the sound, not of psalms or plainsong, but of muzak, the kind of sickly, anonymous music we hate when we hear it in lifts or shopping arcades. Unexpectedly, I found myself weeping with disappointment. My refuge from the world had been cheapened.

The Martyrdom of San Sebastian
  I’m lucky enough to have a choice of refuges and half an hour’s reflection was enough to tell me that I’d been overdoing things and needed to take it easy. Still, some doubts persisted. Churches must be painted, of course, like other buildings, and my friend San Sebastian had probably been whisked out of harm’s way while the work continued. Yet I couldn’t help wondering why piped music had been allowed so inappropriately into a place of worship. Could it be something to do with that more modern religion, ‘El Turismo?’
  Vejer’s church has survived many centuries and seen far worse things than tourism. It’s very likely that there has been a place of worship in that spot for millennia, and some of its stones have no doubt seen service as temple and mosque before regrouping in the late 15th century into a new and specifically Christian edifice. Within its walls, there is evidence of Christian, Gothic and Arab art, and it is commonly believed that the first phase, in Mudéjar style, the Islamic-influenced architecture of medieval Spain, was constructed on the site of a former mosque. 

Image of the sun on the church ceiling
  The demolition of the mosque is a clear sign that the old Moorish culture was now thoroughly vanquished, and the new construction was probably inspired by the fall of Granada in 1492, the final phase in the Reconquista. A second phase, in Gothic style, was added in the seventeenth century and had hardly been completed when the tower was destroyed in the earthquake of 1773. 

Old pictures show the taller and more elegant church spire
The tower was subsequently rebuilt on a less ambitious scale, and though early images show the original as a more elegant structure than it is today, the replacement has proved durable. In 1936, the church was raided and desecrated by Republican protesters at the start of the Spanish Civil war. Compared with all this, a little muzak seems insignificant. 

Damage caused by Republican protestors
  And yet, as TS Eliot wrote, ‘This is how the world ends - not with a bang, but with a whimper.’ And now, suddenly, I’m wondering how far we can take the pursuit of the tourist euro before we begin to destroy the very thing that brought visitors here in the first place. When I first came to Vejer in 2001, I was enchanted by the purity of its white streets, the tranquillity of the summer afternoon, the sense that here was a community, complete in itself, calm beneath its ancient walls. It was manna to the soul.

Ancient attempts to deface Christian imagery

  I wasn’t the only person to think so, and over the years, I’ve watched as cafes and hotels have opened and visitors have continued to arrive, bringing their own kind of life and vitality. In the last few years, the streets have filled with cafe tables and a bustling, optimistic brightness has prevailed. I love Vejer in all the phases of its year, from the elegant silence of winter to the crowded excitement of the summer Feria. 
  Now, though, I’m beginning to notice some false notes. Not too many, but enough to produce a frisson of discomfort. A row of ugly cafe tables. Nasty purple ‘for sale’ signs which project into the street. Beach-style straw umbrellas in the Parque Los Remedios. Hints of a casino on La Corredera. And though the ‘pergolas’ along La Corredera are convenient for diners and restaurateurs, the old-fashioned parasols had more charm. Now, muzak in the church. And I wonder where it will end.

  The answer, of course, will always be that we have to attract visitors - the town needs the money. Even to say these words is to stifle all argument, and very few people ask about the real profit and loss of tourism. 
   In general, tourist income is classified as either ‘direct income’ or ‘leakage’. Leakage is the amount of money earned by tourism which does not remain in the town, and in some developing nations, as much as 90% may be lost, not merely to other areas, but to other countries. Tourism demands investment, and we have to balance what we spend with what we actually get in return.
  It means that a tourist who flies RyanAir (Ireland), hires a vehicle from Europcar (France) and stocks up at Carrefour (France) on the way to their holiday home rented via Airbnb (USA) from an owner in London (UK) doesn’t bring as much profit into Vejer as we might think. And leakage doesn’t stop there. Whenever a tourist consumes something that isn’t produced in the area, the imports required to meet their needs eat into the profits. That Bacardi (Bermuda) and Coke (USA) aren’t as profitable for Vejer as we might like, and even the ingredients for the ubiquitous Tinto de Verano usually come from elsewhere. Some local businesses work hard to counteract this effect; the Califa Group, for example, has its own market garden, but that’s not the norm.
  Least profitable of all are the groups which visit from the cruise ships in Gibraltar and Cadiz. Their expenditure is carefully managed by their tour operators, and we’re lucky if they buy so much as a cup of coffee in Vejer. They’re the classic ‘tomato tourists’, passing through, but contributing very little.

  Towns like Vejer benefit from tourism by charging tax on hotel rooms, which is spent in part on maintaining the infrastructure, severely tested by the influx of summer visitors, as well as providing facilities and opportunities for tourism. Andalucia has also promised legislation to raise taxes from self-catering accommodation in the near future, though this may be difficult to enforce.
  But most tourist money is made by businesses both large and small. Some companies own more than one business, while others are based outside Andalucia, contributing further to the leakage of revenues. For those who don’t have the opportunity to start and run a business, the benefits are not so easy to spot. While work is available through the summer, it’s heartbreaking to see the unemployment figures soar again in September, with no recovery in sight until the job vacancies begin to creep up again in April. 

The church is a significant part of the town's iconography
  Nevertheless, most potential entrepreneurs believe firmly in the powers of tourism, as much as a matter of blind faith as of economic planning, and those involved in rural development assure me that it’s almost impossible nowadays to persuade anybody to invest in anything outside the tourist industry.  This would be more understandable if tourism delivered all-round wellbeing, but as things stand, at 48%, Vejer has the sixth highest rate of unemployment in the whole of Spain. If the money’s coming in, it certainly isn’t going around.
  The rush for the tourist euro has already led to some unfortunate results locally. Though Vejer has some beautiful shops and now, two art galleries, it’s already difficult to buy anything useful in the old town. The Post Office has migrated to the new part and the library will soon follow. Our two small supermarkets have disappeared, one closed and one so beautified and poshified that I hardly dare enter it for fear of what the prices might be. The electrical goods once so usefully available in one local shop have given way to the tourist trinkets and summer dresses which now seem to be on sale in every other doorway. And, if the everyday shops all close, what’s it going to be like in winter, when the souvenir shops close their doors and the old town becomes a ghost town?

  It hasn’t happened yet, and maybe that day will never come. Spain’s native culture is remarkably vibrant, after all. None of this is intended as criticism of our local tourist industry, which has done so much to enliven Vejer. I’d love to see an extended tourist season, maybe with a high-prestige arts festival in Spring or Autumn. But every town needs a balanced economy, and with all eyes fixed firmly on tourism, it seems unlikely that we’ll get one. The new business centre, planned to open this year, may help, but only if some of its users can be weaned off the tourist habit and onto something which offers year-round employment.

Seasonal unemployment has become more exaggerated in recent years

  It all seems a long way from where I started, with the music in the church. But let’s be careful, too. Vejer’s selling point is its beauty, it’s dignity, its ancient heritage, and if these go, who’s going to struggle up the hill to find what’s already available in nearby Conil, and so much closer to the beach? Tourism, the biggest industry in the world, is a good servant, but a poor master. 

Hawaiian style beach umbrellas in the park

 I don’t forget that Vejer is not really my town. Most of its summer visitors are Spanish, and the Spanish presumably know what the Spanish want. But as Coco Chanel said, ‘elegance is refusal’. Let’s just be ready to refuse the ugly and the inappropriate. Nobody will blame us or keep away because we don’t have muzak in the church, a casino or Caribbean style beach umbrellas in the park. Nobody asked for them and most probably, nobody wants them. Or do they? 


  1. Interesting perspective. My main home is in the English Lake District which has similar seasonal employment. I've also studied the decline of "real" shops in nearby Cartmel. However, Cartmel has positive messages. Businesses have evolved here with a focus on gastro-tourism. Whilst not cheap the locals now enjoy great fresh bread, cheeses and locally sourced game. The village thrives on year-round tourism. I was in Vejer in December and whilst some shops were closed Vejer does not feel like it closes down out of the main season. So my point is focused tourism initiatives can keep Verjer alive.

  2. I quite agree, Dave, and it sounds as if Cartmel has been successful in focusing the tourism. Vejer is also developing a reputation for gastro-tourism, though many of the restaurants do close in the winter. Thank you for the comment!