Attracting elderly residents from abroad may not be the perfect solution to counteract a serious loss of population, but for 1,263 villages in the Serranía Celtibérica region, which includes parts of Soria, Teruel, Guadalajara, Cuenca, Valencia, Castellón, Zaragoza, Burgos, Segovia and La Rioja, it could be a lifeline. This region has now become the most depopulated in the European Union. With no chance of finding jobs locally, young people are moving to towns, encouraged by their parents. It's better to have little in a city than nothing in a village, they say.
So only the elderly are left, and the more there are, the better: at least, that's Gary Bedell's philosophy. This Canadian, who has lived in Spain for 25 years, has set up an internet platform to attract retired people from the USA and Canada to Spanish villages. His plan is simple: the pensioners are offered a peaceful existence in delightful villages where their savings will go a lot further than at home, and they will be made very welcome.
About 60 villages have already shown an interest in welcoming elderly couples who have money and want to integrate into local life. This would be completely different from the hordes of British and Germans who flock to other parts of the country, live in 'urbanisations' and surprise waiters if they are able to speak Spanish to them, he explains.
The first arrivals are due in January 2018, to see how the land lies. Gary's 'Viva Rural Spain', the non-profit-making platform, will offer them all the help they need. “Nobody packs a bag one day and takes off to live in another country the next. The idea is that they come and rent a place and spend a while here, and then if they like it they'll buy a house and do it up to live in,” he explains.
Not every village is suitable. They have to be no more than a 90-minute drive from a hospital and must have basic facilities such as shops and a chemist. The council must also be prepared to help the newcomers to integrate. “We will try to ensure that they do not make up more than ten per cent of the population,” says Gary.
One town hall which has expressed an interest in the project is that of Muiesa, a village with 480 inhabitants which will cease to exist unless something is done. “If they come, we will welcome them with open arms. In two days, they'll be learning Spanish,” says the mayor, José Luis Iranzo. He says his village has numerous advantages. “We have a health centre, and patients can be transferred from there by helicopter to Zaragoza. We have two supermarkets, a chemist, several bars, allotments and there are plenty of empty houses available at a good price. If they want peace and quiet, Muiesa is ideal,” he insists.
Like so many other villages, Muniesa is doing everything it can to prevent its young people moving to the towns, but its economy isn't strong enough. There are three small furniture factories and a wine cooperative, but these are not enough to prevent the exodus. “We want to set up a new factory and create five jobs,” says the mayor. “It's not much, but every initiative is welcome, if it helps to save the village.”
“We can't afford to miss any opportunity,” says Joaquín Juste, the vice-president of the Teruel provincial government. “In this province there are nearly 100 villages with fewer than 100 inhabitants. It is very difficult to find an answer to depopulation. First the economy has to be stimulated, and then people's mentality has to change because until recently parents have encouraged their children to leave. For them, moving away signifies success; saying here means failure.”
For the Americans, life would be cheaper. Their average pensions are $1,200 and their savings would guarantee them a tranquil existence in Spain.
The Serranía Celtibérica covers 63,098 square kilometres, double the size of Belgium. It has a population of 487,417 and a density of 7.72 inhabitants per square kilometre. Of its 1,263 municipalities, 556 have fewer than 100 residents. In the rest of Spain, there are 514. This is the most depopulated region in the EU, similar to sparsely inhabited parts of Scandinavia and the Arctic, but its situation is worse: it has the highest rate of ageing population in the UE, and the lowest birth rates.