The Gift Souvenirs shop in Torremolinos. SUR
'Made in China': the changing face of the Costa del Sol souvenir sector

'Made in China': the changing face of the Costa del Sol souvenir sector

Very few of the products sold to tourists nowadays are handmade by local artisans - in stark contrast to previous decades

Ángel Gallardo

Costa del Sol

Wednesday, 30 August 2023

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Mario who owns a small souvenir shop in a side street of Calle San Miguel, in Torremolinos, has told SUR how many of his wares are now made in China in contrast to the locally handmade souvenirs of yesteryear.

It’s early morning and Mario has just opened the shutters on his little shop. The morning is calm with a tourist popping in every now and then in search of a memento to encapsulate their memory of their Costa del Sol trip. His most popular selling items include “the magnet. It is the cheapest," Mario said. The same goes for bracelets. Some include the name Torremolinos, others are just a nice handful of shells joined by a string that could well be sold in any coastal resort in the world.

In the late nineties, when Gift Souvenirs opened, it was his parents who ran the shop. Back then, the holiday reminders that tourists bought were very different from the ones they come looking for today.

Products carrying the name of the town. SUR

"Before, there were more handmade souvenirs, everything was more highly valued, whether they were made of wood or ceramics," Mario lamented, recalling a time when the fans he sold were painted by hand. He said that China has overrun the market and “the artisans here hardly produce anything because you can't sell their product, it's impossible. You can't have an item whose production cost exceeds the current selling price". Mario said he does what he can to maintain the legacy of the old handmade souvenir business with "the few things that are still made in Spain".

Made in Spain. SUR

This season, Mario said, the star products are hats, mugs and thermometers. Last summer the most popular items were the beach bag, towel and apron. It is a fickle market and prices are radically competitive. Tourists wander from shop to shop to take photos, compare and grab the cheapest item. More than a few gift shops have closed in recent years.

The only way to keep up is to innovate and offer unique items, different from the rest of the shops. Maricarmen, from the nearby shop named Moling, has been doing very well lately with her pot-shaped magnets containing a small cactus. Some say "Malaga", others "The Costa del Sol", but if they didn't say anything, they would probably still sell. "You keep it on the fridge and, if you get fed up, you move it to a bigger pot so that it can grow," she explained to a customer, who ended up taking two. Maricarmen explained that she has to constantly think what to stock to differentiate her shop from her competitors. She feels she is onto a winner with the cactus and that it will not appear on other shelves soon. "There are many of us and we all have the same story," she said.

Following the stairs that lead to the promenade, there is a ceramic shop. "Business is bad, very bad," the owner said with a frown. "Twenty years ago there was much more movement.” He said that now the wealthier tourists all go to Benalmádena. "Those who pass through here have just enough for the plane and the hotel," he said in reference to the many young Spaniards who only come to Torremolinos for a couple of days.

“When I started working seven years ago, people took the products without looking at the price,” said Bárbara, from 'Souvenirs Daniela', a few metres from the beach. She inflates a swim mat worth a couple of euros for a customer. “Watch out for jellyfish, here they are big and small,” she warned the buyer. Her shop full of T-shirts from movies, series, and video games is on the verge of becoming a bazaar. They include 'Barbie', 'Roblox' or 'Fortnite', but they all have the name Torremolinos stamped on them.

“At first we sold porcelain, castanets,” explained the saleswoman. “Now maybe they come looking for a superhero shirt, which is not something very traditional here”. She was forced to reorient the business, which sells fewer and fewer souvenirs.

It seems that the handmade wooden and ceramic gifts that Mario's parents sold are, today more than ever, what they always were: memories.

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