According to official figures 1,629,298 people live in the province of Malaga, but this is only a fraction of the true number. These are the people who are registered at their local town halls, but thousands of unregistered foreigners also live here and other people come from elsewhere in Spain to study or work without registering.
It is very difficult to obtain an accurate figure, but taking into account everyday factors such as the amount of rubbish collected and the water
consumed, it is estimated to be over two million.
That may be the case for most of the year, but in the summer, with an avalanche of tourists arriving, the population multiplies and can reach 2.67 million in August alone. If that statistic is extrapolated just to the western Costa del Sol, the 527,030 people registered as living in the area between Torremolinos and Manilva would multiply to around a million for a large part of the year and triple in the summer.
Does this mean that this tourism destination par excellence is on the point of collapse? The experts say not, but warn that although there is a margin and sufficient infrastructure to cope with the demand, there is a need to seek a balance and know how to manage public services in order to avoid the province becoming a victim of its own success or opening the door to the ‘tourism phobia’ which is affecting more crowded areas such as the Balearic Islands at present.
From coast to coast
On the western coast, Marbella is a prime example of this massive increase in population every summer, but it is by no means alone. On the other side of Malaga, on the coast of La Axarquía, for example, rubbish collection increases by 33 per cent in August, compared with quieter times of year.
In the Ronda area, the amount of rubbish collected increases by 37.2 per
cent and in Antequera by 31.4 per cent in the summer, but the situation is different in the Guadalhorce area, where the highest increases are in June (21.4 per cent) and in August the figure is eight points lower. As a general rule, it should be lower in August because so many people go away on holiday, but in fact the reduction only serves to counterbalance the more than 1,000 tonnes of rubbish generated by Malaga Fair.
Rubbish collection is one of the most reliable indicators to measure the real population because the amount of domestic waste generated by one person hardly varies throughout the year. Water consumption is another, because it can be three times as high in summer as in the winter.
According to the Acosol water company, about 34.7 cubic hectometres are supplied to the western Costa del Sol a year, and about 38 per cent of that is used between July and September. Despite the lack of rain, there is no cause for concern about supplies.
“We have done our homework for years, to make sure we have enough water even in a record year in terms of visitors” says CEO Manuel Cardeña. The amount of water consumed in Malaga city also increases greatly in the summer, by about 27.1 per cent, once again partly due to the fair in August.
Electricity consumption is a similar case: the fairground uses the same amount as a municipality the size of Coín (21,000 inhabitants). In the province as a whole demand is quite stable all year round, although there are peaks in the coldest and hottest months because of heating and air conditioning.
It is obvious from a walk through Malaga city centre or along any sea front promenade that the population increases in the summer, but figures from the airport have confirmed that this is a record year: in July the number of passengers exceeded two million for the first time ever. The roads are visibly busier with traffic and finding a parking space can be a challenge. Although many local people refuse to use the toll motorways because the price goes up in the summer, at this time of year over 41,000 vehicles a day drive along the AP-7 on the western Costa del Sol, which is 72 per cent more than usual, and 19,111 (almost double) use the AP-46 Las Pedrizas motorway.
Figures provided by the emergency departments of hospitals also show how much the population increases. In the summer, 17.4 per cent more people are treated at the Costa del Sol hospital in Marbella, and 13 per cent more at the Clínico Universitario in Malaga.
Coping with the pressure
Is the province in general, and the Costa del Sol in particular, able to cope ? Enrique Navarro, of the Faculty of Tourism at Malaga university, says it can at the moment: “There has been a great deal of investment in infrastructure to support this increase in population, but we do need to improve the way we manage tourism and, especially, its impact on local society and the economy,” he says. “People tend to think of tourism as a problem when the influx of visitors makes their everyday lives more inconvenient.”
The director of Malaga council’s Urban Environment Observatory (Omau), Pedro Marín Cots, agrees.
“I don’t think the province has reached saturation point, although it may become very crowded at times. We are talking about a destination with powerful tourist infrastructure, but we must not forget that sustainability has limits, tourism needs to be balanced and well organised,” he points out.
While local councils welcome the income from tourism with open arms, they all find it a challenge to provide the level of services which are needed by the extra visitors in the summer.
In Marbella, for example, there are officially 140,000 inhabitants, but rubbish collection figures suggest the real population is nearer 250,000, rising to 400,000 in summer. However, the Local Police force believes the true figure at this time of year is around 500,000, sometimes reaching over 600,000. Anyone who has been stuck in long traffic jams in the Marbella area at this time of year, or tried to find a parking space, will be well aware of the problems this can cause.
In Torremolinos, where the population quadruples in summer, council workers and municipal companies are stretched to their limit. The increase in rubbish is one of the main headaches for the Town Hall, because so many staff are on holiday at this time of year. There are also more concerts and events in the summer so Samset, the company responsible for building the stages and providing the sound and lighting, has its work cut out to cope.
In Benalmádena the figures are similar to those of Torremolinos. The population is around 300,000 in summer but the council only has resources for a registered population of less than 70,000. The number of Local Police officers (142), council operatives and gardeners remains the same all year round.
“Sometimes it seems as if we are overflowing with people,” admits the mayor, Víctor Navas, who has been requesting more resources from other authorities for months. “We need more workers, but we are told we can’t have them because of spending limits and the law of rationalisation and sustainability. That’s why we’re asking for the regulations to be modified.”
The situation in Fuengirola is similar, but it is much smaller in size (barely ten square kilometres) and problems occur when there are so many extra people. One is in terms of health care, because geographically the town is as far from the hospitals in Malaga as from the one in Marbella. The main problem, though, is parking. Although there are blue zones these are proving inadequate. There are frequent complaints about the lack of parking spaces, or having to wait up to an hour for one to become free.
In Mijas Pueblo and Las Lagunas, most services are being adequately covered, but in La Cala the population has increased so much in recent summers that it is causing traffic problems and there are long delays to join the A-7 highway. The Local Police force is having to manage with reduced staffing levels, and there is no National Police station in the village.
On the eastern coast, the population doubles in towns such as Nerja, Torrox, Algarrobo, Torre del Mar and Rincón, and at times it can be three times as high as usual. Street cleaners are working double shifts and the police are doing overtime, but it is not easy for the councils because their budgets are based on much lower population figures.
In Vélez-Málaga this year there is an additional problem: internal conflict in the Local Police force, because officers are demanding improved working conditions. Since 16 July most officers have refused to do any overtime. As a result, the council has been forced to suspend some holiday leave.