Critic Peter S. Beagle, writing about Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, commented on the 'erotic derangement that turns us all into voyeurs, a place filled with the intoxicating air of perfect liberty.' For decades Spain has been sold as such a place, a place of 'perfect liberty', by budget tour companies. In particular, for the last sixteen years British students have converged in the handsome Costa Dorada locality of Salou, intent on turning it into a scene from a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
The intoxicating air of perfect liberty. This could easily be applied to the way Saloufest, marketed as 'the fundamental rite of passage for students' by its organizer, ILOVETOUR, has been publicized to young students across Britain, in the process bringing Bacchian scenes to the Tarragonan town and turning its inhabitants into appalled prisoners of their own unwilling voyeurism.
The fact is that the excesses of the festival have long isolated the local community, despite it attracting thousands of tourists during a a relatively quiet time of year. Pissing, vomiting and defecating on the streets, climbing ontop of cars, sex on the beach and willy-waving on hotel balconies are commonplace sights and have become synonymous with public conceptions of Salou.
The economic benefits of the festival have also been furiously debated. The Tarragonese Tourist Federation estimates that Saloufest is only responsible for 0.05% of all visitors, and its value in capital terms - €5million, according to the festival organizers - has been dismissed by Salou's mayor Pere Granados as 'bread for today, hunger for tomorrow.'
Now, in a move which will be applauded by coastal communities anxious to preserve - or in some cases restore - a dignified atmosphere on their streets and beaches, the Generalitat and Ajuntament de Salou have announced the party is officially over for the controversial festival. As of next year the event will be banned.
It is 60 years since Spain began to develop its Costas for mass tourism, leading to enormous changes - both cultural and geographical - in its coastline habitats. Benidorm, the flagship resort, was in the late 1940s, little more than a handsome fishing town dependent on its tuna fishery. Then in the early 1950s it was earmarked as a landmark 'sun and sand' development. Four main hotels were opened, and in 1959 the mayor agreed to allow the use of bikinis on the beach, until then strictly prohibited. In the 1960s Benidorm put up its first skyscrapers, and began to hold the Benidorm Song Festival, which would later establish it as a top venue for international music acts in its 70s heyday. Now, after a gradual erosion of its appeal during the 1980s thanks to a reputation for lager-fuelled hooliganism, the resort's glamorous legacy is almost forgotten, and Benidorm has morphed into an Iberian Blackpool with stag nights, mobility scooters, Sticky Vicky and curry n' chips. In Benidorm's extreme case this has led to ironic-iconic status among Spaniards, who wearily recognise the town as a microcosm of Spain's pact with the economy devil.
It's a long way from the uneasy initial frictions of the tourist-local relationship chronicled by the English writer Norman Lewis in his Voices of the Old Sea, which described the transformation of a traditional, extremely superstitious Costa Bravan fishing village into a would-be tourist destination in the 1950s:
'Muga watched over the tourists like a hen clucking after its brood. He opened all doors for them, and responded to every whim. A number of Spanish regulations relating to the conduct of the individual in public places were still in force, and single-handed Muga tore them away. It was illegal to embrace or kiss publicly, but in the second year of the tourists it was not possible to go out on a moonlight night without seeing couples locked in each other's arms in the nooks and corners of the village, or in or under the boats pulled up on the beach. A professional bigot in plain clothes arrived wityh a tape-measure to spearhead a police campaign against off-the-shoulder dresses, but Muga soon got rid of him. In 1950 a male tourist was still not permitted to go about in shorts unless he tied his handkerchiefs over his knee-caps, but Muga had a Civil Guard who tried to enforce this regulation shifted to another area. In the same year a local girl was sent to a correctional facility for wearing a two-piece bathing dress, but foreigners could wear what they liked, and even undress on the beach, although the spectacle could draw wondering crowds.'
In a conversation with one of the local fishermen, the author asks if the pescadores - who once abhored the idea of using their boats for pleasure-rides but have given into the lure of tourist money - still actually fish.
'In a token fashion,' Simon said. 'Just to show they were still fishermen.'
But seen in the perspective of years, he insisted that what they were going through was no more than a temporary and unimportant phase. They were born fishermen, from innumerable generations of fishermen and seafaring forbears, and this they would remain. .Through the ungovernable forces of nature they had suffered a dislocation, but eventually the tide would turn again in the meanwhile the easy money brought in by the foreigners should be taken, but only as a means to an honourable end.'
In the case of that Costa Bravan fishing village, the tide never turned. Tourism is the keystone of Spain's modern economy, and that isn't about to change. But perhaps, with more decisions like the one taken in Salou, many long-suffering Spanish coastal resorts can begin to reclaim their dignity, and dream of an 'honourable end' to a Boschian vision of their garden of earthly delights.