Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Real Estate-Oriented Tourism Threatens Mediterranean Coastlines

Written by on . Published in The great land rush on , , , , , .

In the following, “real estate-oriented tourism” means any tourism strategy that consists of encouraging people to buy real estate as a secondary residence.

In her article “The Great Land Rush”, Arrianna Marie Coleman alerts us to the fact that small farmers are the first to suffer from new land deals driven by the rise of population and the developpement of biofuels. On a quite different note, but still on the issue of land grabs, this post will raise the issue of the harm that real estate-oriented tourism causes to the Mediterranean coastline.

Post-world-war economic growth in Western Europe led to higher purchasing power and a significant increase in tourism-related industries. This development encouraged the creation of numerous beach resorts in the northern part of the Mediterranean,  Spain, France and Italy being the early pioneers.

According to the United Nations Environmental Program, coastal areas have been overused and heavily urbanized: 43% of Italy’s coast is completely urbanized, 28% is partly urbanized and only 29% of its coastline is free of construction. Following such exploitation, many areas have undergone dramatic change, leading to the loss of wild life habitats. Loss of habitat directly affects rare and endangered species and leads to the loss of biodiversity (WWF, 2000). Although there is no precise information on how many species have become extinct over the past three decades, about 24% (1,130) of mammals and 12% (1,183) of bird species are currently regarded as globally threatened.

The secondary residence concept emerged in the early days of coastline development as an easy way to enhance the visiting population of a tourist area in the peak period of the year: after all, a real estate owner is more likely to visit the tourist area on a regular basis to get a return on his investment. Half a century later, land prices on the French Côte d’Azur and the real estate crisis in the Spanish Costa del Sol led to a public outcry in Europe against dense development in coastal areas. Ecological considerations also played their part in providing more arguments against coastal concreting: laws such as “la loi littorale” in France voted in 1986 make it harder and harder to build near the coast.

Sentier Littorale - Gilbert Bochenek

Le Sentier Littoral - photo by Gilbert Bochenek. In France, the "loi littorale" is a law that obliges private property owners to set their houses back a minium of 100 meters from the coast. Some houses built before the law was passed had to be partly demolished to keep the coastline in the public domain.

While some countries whose coastal tourism developed at a later stage like Croatia avoided reproduction of the Franco-Spanish model, Morocco, Tunisia and Greece (among others) made real estate-oriented projects the backbone of their tourist strategies, resulting in a vast and anarchic urban sprawl along their coastlines.

In the period of 2004-2010, more than 2500 hectares were used for real estate purposes on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, 700 hectares alone in the region of Saidia, a few hundred meters from the mouth of the Moulouya river. Moreover, the new buildings are along a strip that occupies a significant proportion of the 15 km sandy beach in the most eastern part of Morocco.

Turkey is a leading country in terms of coastal tourism in the Mediterranean area. In early 2012, the Turkish Environment and Urbanization Minister, Erdogan Bayraktar, stated that the draft law allowing foreign nationals to purchase and own property in Turkey is set to be debated. When the new law comes into force, it will lift restrictions on citizens from 89 countries worldwide from owning property in Turkey.  Beyond the shadow of a doubt this new law will lead to a significant increase in the urban sprawl already afflicting the Turkish coastline.

A real estate sign for potential foreign clients in Kas, Turkey - Photo: Mehdi Lbadikho 2012

An abandoned coastal construction in Antalya, Tukey. Photo: Mehdi Lbadikho 2012

A demolished coastal construction in Antalya, Turkey. Photo: Mehdi Lbadikho 2012

Economic drawbacks:

Among the most frequent arguments put forward against real estate as a tourist strategy, the economic argument is often the least used. Yet in the absence of quantitative studies comparing the results of real estate ownership-driven strategies versus hotels and property rentals, many advocates use the simple but sharp argument that “while hotels and tourist rental facilities boost employment, residential complexes do not”. They also stress the fact that residential complexes use much more land per equivalent amount of beds in hotels, and that owners of secondary residences only use them for a few weeks to one month a year, while hotels run for the whole of the tourist season. What’s more, the hotel industry’s tourist strategy allows for higher consumption of secondary goods (souvenirs, food, services etc. ) which ultimately drives the economy.

Ecological consequences:

As Yoshikatsu Nakano states in “Direct Impacts of Coastal Development”, ”the major sources of disturbance modifying and/or destroying coral reefs are civil engineering works, which include dredging and reclamation”.  In Spain, for instance, the GreenPeace Annual Report for 2007 shows that Spanish beaches and waters are at risk from pollution and claims that 350 coastal municipalities do not properly purify their waste water before pumping it into the sea. More care must be taken with wastewater, the report warns.

The case of the Moroccan Saidia is emblematic of the past 10 years: just a couple of years of coastal construction proved enough to provoke a significant degradation of the land-sea equilibrium as we can see in the two photos below taken before and after the construction of the controversial resort of “Mediteranea Saidia” in the eastern part of north Morocco.

Part of the wetlands of the Moulouya river estuary one year after the start of construction on Mediteranea Saidia. Photos: Mohammed Benatta, ©

The same area as above, 3 years later. Photos: Mohammed Benatta, ©

Besides the  direct impact of coastal construction on the degradation of the land-water interface, the impact of climate change will also worsen the situation as land erosion increases with rising sea levels. And this is not to mention the impact of climate change on fisheries in the land-water interface nor the impact of polluted water generated by houses in coastal areas.


The most obvious alternative to protect the coastline is to build tourist facilities far from the coast. But as by their very nature such facilities are the more attractive the closer they are to the sea, such proposals would face strong opposition from tourist industry operators – with the exception of ecotourism promoters who are more likely to accept such restrictions on coastal construction.

Other options include building a greater consensus between supporters of concrete-free coastlines and tourist industry operators and encouraging hotel rather than residential development in coastal areas. One interesting case in point here is the Moroccan “Sfiha” in eastern Hoceima province: after refusing initial plans for the building of a large residential complex in the city of Ajdir, NGOs proposed an alternative project with more hotel-focused facilities, and the real estate company finally accepted the NGOs proposal instead of sticking to its initial plans.


Addendum – the Croatian Model:

Among Mediteranean countries, Croatia deserves an honorable mention for its success in developing sustainable tourism. For a better understanding of the success of Croatia, this report from the United Nations is valuable reading.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Mehdi Lbadikho Twitter: @L_badikho

Lbadikho, Engineer, Blogger at and co-founder of the Moroccan portal Also blogging about sustainable development issues in Morocco at