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Pedro Zaragoza Orts - the man who made it all happen

On the wall of the abogado's office at number 6 Calle Tomas Ortuño, on the short pedestrian section of one of the main streets in Benidorm, is a photo of the students who gained their Licenciatura en Turismo from Alicante University. Three rows of seven photos, twenty of who's smiling faces are of young men and women between the ages of 17 and 24. At the end of the bottom row, right hand corner, is a picture of Pedro Zaragoza Orts - aged seventy-eight. It is one of life's little ironies that fifty years after beginning a career in which he was to almost single-handedly create one of the greatest phenomenon in the history of tourism world-wide, he finally found time to gain a qualification in the subject. And he didn't get it given to him - he worked for it.

Below the photo sits Don Pedro himself; short, round and bespectacled, wearing his trademark Groucho Marx-ish moustache. "This is the very spot where I was born, on the fifteenth of May 1922." he says, pointing downwards. Not exactly in the chair, but in the bed that occupied the spot in the family home. The house eventually made way for the block of shops, offices and apartments that became part of the urban plan that took a village of 1,500 souls to a city which is now the major holiday destination in the whole of Europe. "And the spot in which, seventeen days later, my mother died." he adds.

As a young man Pedro Zaragoza intended to follow in the footsteps of his father who captained one of the ships of the Trasatlantica Line, Spain's largest shipping line that crossed the Atlantic to the US and Latin America. But he soon discovered his heart was not in the ship industry and began travelling Spain, working in a series different jobs trying to find the one that best suited his vibrant personality.

In his search he turned his hand to anything and everything. He is credited with discovering the richest deposits of phosphorous in the world at Cacerés. In typical Zaragoza style he worked as a driller 400m underground (for the princely sum of 13 pesetas a day) but in months was promoted to Manager. With the death of his father two years later he returned to Benidorm. "This is the land of my family, the fields, the houses. It's the Mediterranean way, it's important for us. We like to be in the place where all the family is in the cemetery."

The return of the native heralded the beginning of monumental change in Benidorm. At the end of the 1940's there was no such thing as elections: alcaldes (mayors), always members of Franco's National Movement, were all appointed, and on December 10, 1950 the Civil Govenor of the province, Don Jesús Aramboru, asked Pedro to take over the position for three months. He was still there sixteen years later.

"The village was normally a very quiet, friendly place, but at this time a lot of the families were arguing over who should be alcalde, so Don Jesús asked me to do it as a temporary measure. At first I didn't want to, but I soon realised just what could be done for our little town."

The guidebooks state that Benidorm was originally a fishing port, but this was never the case, although the villagers did live off the sea. "When you have no fresh water and all the land is fit for is olives and almonds, you eat a lot of fish!" exclaims Don Pedro. Many of the men in the village travelled the world on the liners and cargo ships of major international fleets, and it was the knowledge that these men brought back with them which was a boon to the adventurous young mayor. "They had seen things and knew that we could make a better way of life for ourselves here." But with an annual budget of 70,000 pesetas, worth a little over four hundred and seventy pounds, just enough to pay the five council employees, the ajuntamiento (town hall) didn't have a lot to spend on development. So why tourism? "What else? All we had was the sun, the sea and the beaches."

The village had always been popular with veraneos, people who took a few days break by the sea, but by the 50's, visitors from northern Europe were beginning to arrive in droves. In the later years of this decade the icon of liberty was the bikini, it's bulky knicker and bra top barely recognisable by comparison to today's string and handkerchief affairs, but in staunchly Catholic Spain, still held in the firm two-handed grasp of church and state, this 'scanty' garment was a tool of the devil. Allowable (occasionally) on the beaches, it had to be covered up the moment sand drifted from between the toes. In one famous incident, a British tourist, sitting in a bar opposite a beach wearing only a bikini was told by a Guardia Civil officer that she wasn't allowed to wear it there. She hit him, and her strike for social justice cost her a fine of 40,000 pesetas, no mean sum, when the average wage was just over a hundreds pesetas a day. Step forward Pedro Zaragoza, the General in what jokingly became called 'The War of the Bikini'.

"If you want people to come to your town for their holidays you have to be ready to accommodate not just them but their culture as well.' he says. "People had to feel free to be able to wear what they wanted, within reason, if it helped them enjoy themselves, and if they enjoyed themselves they would come back and also tell their friends about the place."

So in 1959 he decided to take the two-piece problem into his own two hands. Under threat of excommunication by the Archbishop of Valencia, he rose at three one morning, stuffed newspapers down his jumper to keep out the cold, and set off on his Vespa for the six-hour ride to Madrid (something he would later do on a regular basis when he spent twelve years as a Member of Parliament). His destination - the Palace of El Pardo and General Franco.

Everyone thought he was mad but he gained his audience and Franco decreed that visitors could wear the bikini in the streets and plazas of Benidorm, the first town in Spain where they were allowed to do so. "He told me that from then on if I ever had any big problems I was to go directly to him. And I did. And I replied that God opened the doors of the Pardo for me because he knows I tell the truth."

It's a personal moto which is repeated regularly during our interview - never cheat, never lie, and never tell people you will do something that you cannot do. "The General told me to expect something in a few days time. Ten days later his wife, Doña Carmen Polo de Franco, arrived at my house with a senior government minister and stayed for three days." People took Pedro a bit more seriously after that.

The stories of Don Pedro's promotional ploys are endless and the marketing skills of this small-town boy would put many of today's business innovators to shame: sending boxes of turron and bottles of wine labelled 'Bottled in the sun of Benidorm' to the young Queen Elizabeth; talking the airlines BA, SAS and FinAir into flying branches of almond trees, still in bloom in early December, to sub-zero Stockholm, where they were scattered throughout Nordiska (the Harrods of Sweden) with signs saying 'Benidorm, España!' People thought they were fake!

He also invented the Benidorm Song Contest, which eventually became one of the biggest in Europe. On one occasion, having attended the International Tourist Fair in Cologne, he drove all the way back in a battered old Mercedes nailing up signs at strategic points reading 'To Benidorm xxx kilometres'.

One of his most famous exploits was 'Operation Lapland', a plan to bring a family of Laplanders to Benidorm. Hans Nuorgam kept a herd of reindeer in the tiny, eight-house village of Kaamasmukka five hundred kilometres north of Helsinki, the Finish capital. With his wife and two of his eight children they were brought on the long journey south.

"On the way we stopped at Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Brussels, Luxembourg, Barcelona and Madrid," remembers Pedro. "They wore their national dress, with the strange pointed hat, and everywhere they went they carried a sign saying 'Benidorm'. The publicity was amazing."

When the President of Finland declined to meet the family Pedro said he would take them to meet General Franco instead. "People said I was stupid, trying to get Laplanders to come here on holiday, but they missed the point. I was trying to get the name of Benidorm known all over the world."

Pedro Zaragoza's reputation as a pioneer of Spanish tourism is widely acknowledged, but for him his life's greatest achievement is the Plan General de Ordencación de Benidorm which he brought into being in February 1954. "This was an urban revolution. I knew the town would develop and I wanted it to develop in a humane way.'

Pedro's plans and the plans of others didn't necessarily agree, and he admits that if he had been an elected mayor instead of an appointed one he wouldn't have been a mayor for very long. He also admits that some of his ideas did seem strange at the time. "Many of the landowners were very short-sighted and couldn't understand why, for example, I wanted an avenida 80m wide." Their objections were hardly surprising considering there were only seven cars in the town at the time. "They thought 10m was enough, so we eventually settled on 40m. But I was building for the future, even if I never lived to see it."

The essence of the Plan was that every building would have an area of 'leisure' land surrounding it in direct relationship to the built area, so that whilst Benidorm gained a reputation as being a high-rise development, seen from the hill at the end of the Rincon de Loix, the highest point in the city, it is in fact very green and open. The plan is still in use today, and has been adopted by a number of developing towns in the Costa Blanca.

When he decided to retire as Alcalde of Benidorm, Pedro Zaragoza went on to become President of the Diputación de Alicante, Director General de Empresas y Actividades Turisticas for the Mininstry of Information in Madrid, Civil Governor of Guadalajara, Member of Parliament, and held high office with many banks and major business.

At 50, when most of us are settling down to an easier life, he began a new career as an abogado (solicitor), a job he still does full-time today. He still gets up at 3am to study (he's now reading for a Titulo Superior de Turismo, the equivalent of a Masters degree), work on his three books in progress (he's already written three), develop his role as Asesor de Turismo for the government of Costa Rica, and continue his journalistic work for some of Spain's leading newspapers, "just to keep myself busy".

For a man who claims to believe in only two things (God and bicarbonate of soda) Don Pedro Zaragoza Orts feels that his ideas have been justified - the city boasts more hotel stars than the whole of Greece; is arguably the most important holiday destination in Europe; offers the largest number of hotel beds after London and Paris, and has the highest level of return visitors. And you can still go fishing.


Derek Workman


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