The Development of Benidorm as a Tourist Resort 1865-2015
Introduction Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4 Stage 5 Stage 6
Stage 1: Exploration
When speaking of the rise of tourism in Benidorm various commentators have mistakenly described how a “sleepy fishing village” became a teeming tourist resort overnight in the 1960s. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Far from this mythical image of a quiet little backwater unconnected with the wider world, Benidorm had a long-standing maritime history, significant business and cultural connections and its rise as a holiday destination starts nearly a hundred years before the time when its more recent wave of tourists began to discover the resort.
Benidorm produced merchant sea captains and naval mariners that filled the lists of the personnel in the Compañia Trasatlántica Española (CTE) in the 19th century. One historian cites the figure of 350 officers and men of Benidorm working in that transatlantic fleet at the time of the Cuban war. It would be true to say that many of the men of Benidorm were more familiar with the ports of Buenos Aires or New York than they were with the nearby towns of Callosa or Alcoy.
The people of Alcoy, however, were quite familiar with Benidorm. For the wealthier people of Alcoy, Benidorm became a place for relaxation and summer retreat. The Alcoyanos bought land for themselves at the Benidorm end of the Levante beach, to build summer chalets – the road is still named after Alcoy today – and the town developed various entertainments including a casino. This first tourism was the result of the sea-bathing fashion of the 19th century  with a new emphasis on fresh air and exercise. The royals (Queen Isabella II, 1833-1868) and the wealthy upper classes of Madrid were discovering the summer resort of San Sebastian in the north.
In 1869 a doctor, E. Sánchez Santana had analysed the atmospheric conditions in the coastal towns of Alicante (not known as the Costa Blanca until 1957, as we shall see later) and he pronounced them more favourable than the Cantabrian coast favoured by the Madrileños. As a result Benidorm began to attract more visitors.
In 1865 the Hostal la Mayora was constructed in the street now called Passeig de la Carretera (a street often renamed in Benidorm’s history) to cater for visitors to the Baños de la Virgen del Sufragio, taking advantage of the new fashion for sea bathing (for more on this see pdf file in Spanish: balnearios marítimos) An 1893 leaflet for this health spa represents the first tourist information produced in Benidorm. We can therefore date the beginning of tourism in Benidorm to the 1860s and the resort’s history of self-promotion to the 1890s.
The first steam train arrived in Alicante from the capital in 1858 and it cost 12 pesetas for the 20-hour journey. The extraordinary effect of this connection between Madrid and Alicante can be demonstrated by the population figures alone: Alicante went from 20,000 to 50,000 residents within two years of the arrival of the first train.
It was known as the tren botijo because passengers carried a ceramic water bottle. A horse-drawn diligence went from Alicante to Benidorm three times a day, morning, midday and midnight; the journey took two hours. By 1915 visitors from Madrid could make the entire journey by train, as the Ferrocaril de la Marina completed the line from Alicante to Benidorm. (For a more complete history of this line see the excellent story of “El Trenet” on the Histobenidorm blog.)
Most visitors were still discovering the destination for themselves, but the enterprising Ramiro Mestre Martínez, editor of La Correspondencia, using his newspaper to publicise holidays in Alicante resorts, began to organise holidays from 1893 for lower middle-class Madrileños. He became in effect Benidorm’s first travel agent.
It was not by chance that Benidorm gained some reputation as a fashionable place and a health resort: it had long been home to a number of influential families whose domestic, business and cultural interests centred on the Calle Alameda. The town evidently had enough wealth to install street lighting as early as 1910. (The wall-mounted lamps all around the old town and occasional standard lamp are not antique stock but reproductions installed in the 1970s.) The first standard lamp was placed in the Placa de lá Constitucio where the first ayuntamiento was situated: a rare combination of town hall and butcher’s shop! Due to the unusual number of merchant sea captains who came from Benidorm and sailed the transatlantic routes, it is said that the pharmacy in Benidorm contained such a wide range of international medicines that it had the reputation of being better than any in Madrid until relatively recent times.
Apart from the Hostal la Mayora, accommodation in Benidorm was obtained from local people, who would rent out their houses and spend the summer in their nearby orchards. Beginning at the turn of the century, the summer visitors from Alcoy built their chalets on the Levante beach.
 Amillo Allegre, Francisco, Historia de Benidorm de los orígenes a 1960, (AEMABA, 2012), p.251.
 See for example the Nueva Guía del Bañista en España published in 1852 at the time when San Sebastian became popular with the royals and the upper classes in Madrid; also J.M. Beascoechea Gangoiti, ‘Veraneo y urbanización en las playas de la costa cantábrica durante el siglo XIX, Historia Contemporánea 25, 2002, pp. 181-202.
 Allegre, op.cit. p.339.