How much does a cave cost when it is a tourist attraction and has been declared of special cultural interest?
That's the question that a panel of three experts has just answered. In their opinion the Cueva del Tesoro caves, which includes prehistoric painting and is the only cave system formed by the sea in Europe that is open to the public, is worth 4.9 million euros.
This was shock news for local councillors in Rincón de la Victoria, east of Malaga, who want to buy the cave from the current private owners and who commissioned the independent valuation report to promote their case. Their own council analysts had put the price at a far more conservative 91,827 euros.
The council currently leases the cave from the Laza Zerón family. The five sisters and one brother are heirs of Manuel Laza Palacio, a member of Malaga's San Telmo academy who carried out detailed explorations and studies of the cave system he owned up to his death in 1988.
The thirty-year-old agreement with the town hall to run it as a tourist attraction ends in 2021 and councillors would like to buy it in order to carry out a restoration and conservation programme. The owning family had asked for nine million euros.
The Cueva del Tesoro is an underground system covering almost 3,000 square metres in the Cantal area of La Cala del Moral, near Rincón. It runs for over two and a half kilometres although only 500 metres are open to the public. The council currently pays 25,000 euros annual rent.
Despite the valuation of their own panel, which was made up of two members from the San Telmo fine arts academy in Malaga and one from the San Fernando academy in Seville, councillors want to press ahead with the acquisition and have decided to seek a judicial review so that a court can decide which quote is valid.
Local tourism councillor, Javier López, told SUR, "We see it as an exorbitant sum to pay. It has to be a token amount, as it's a specially-protected cultural site. You can't value it like a piece of real estate."
The owners of the cave however see it from the opposite point of view. Manuel Laza Zerón, one of the joint owners, said, "You can't just pay us a token amount when three independent experts have valued it at 4.9 million. It was [ the council] that commissioned the study and now they want to go to court. We aren't in it to make money, we're interested in its preservation." Laza Zerón went on to explain that he saw the purchase as "complicated" as the town hall has debts of 65 million euros.
"For me, there's no problem in agreeing a renewal for 15 or 30 years, as long as the conservation of the cave is guaranteed," Laza continued. He expressed disappointment that, despite attempts to eradicate mould growing inside, "this hasn't been finished, nor have the lights and railings been changed". He also called for a lift in the cave to be removed as it "causes pollution", stating that he didn't rule out the family running the cave themselves in the future.