Marbella-based writer Joanna Styles asks why the Costa del Sol's glitziest hub remains so popular and how the market's moving there now.
The sun's just setting behind Gibraltar on the horizon, the Rif Mountains in Morocco look purple in the evening light and the Sierra Blanca Mountains glow orange to the north. Lots of us are out on the seafront promenade - running, speed-walking, cycling or just strolling along and soaking up the last of the rays. And I know that like me, many of the people out this evening wouldn't live anywhere else. We're in Marbella, a resort that has attracted tourists in droves since the first sun-seekers arrived back in the late 1940s. But the Costa del Sol resort earned its place on the European tourism circuit when German aristocrat Alfonso de Hohenlohe founded the Marbella Club Hotel in 1954, a position consolidated some 15 years later with the construction of Puerto Banús, a luxury marina that rivals St Tropez.
Since then, Marbella has steadily climbed the tourism rankings and is now one of Europe's top holiday spots - and has of course become a celebrity magnet, attracting everyone from Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly to Princess Diana and the Goldsmiths - to more recently, Roman Abramovich and Michelle Obama and of course we have to mention the cast of The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE) - from where the phrase "[no carbs before] Marbs" originated.
TripAdvisor rated the resort among one of the ten best destinations in Spain this year and Marbella is one of the only two Spanish resorts nominated for best European beach destination in the 2014 World Travel Awards. Confirming its popularity, winter tourism was the busiest for several years and Easter visitors reached figures not seen since 2007. On the back of the huge influx of tourists so far this year, city businesses are expecting the best summer on record. But Marbella isn't just about holidays - it's also one of the most popular places in Spain for relocation. Nearly 40,000 of the 142,000 inhabitants are foreigners (from 137 different nationalities with a British majority) and this number gets bigger every year. What has this southern Spanish resort got that makes it so popular?
Top of everyone's list has to be the weather - 320 plus days of sunshine a year appeal to anyone - and of course, the outdoor lifestyle that goes with it. But there's much more to Marbella than just a great climate. Plenty to do is another attraction and importantly for residents, this happens all year round. "It's the only resort city on the Mediterranean with a true 12-month season where they don't roll up the sidewalks in the winter," says Christopher Clover of Panorama (panorama.es), Savills' new associate. Bar the beach clubs, you'll find practically everything in Marbella open all year. And for everything, read one of Spain's largest shopping centres, 15 golf courses, four marinas, over 600 restaurants (three with Michelin stars to their name), numerous clinics and hospitals, 10 international schools, 16 miles of beaches...
Linda and Malvin Preece of Developments Worldwide moved to Marbella from the Costa Blanca in 2007 to bring up their young family. "There are a lot more opportunities in this area for families and we all love the outdoor life," they say, highlighting that Marbella is "always looking forward to new ideas and change because of the influence of so many nationalities". As well as contributing to the resort's dynamic outlook, Marbella's cultural melting pot also makes relocation easier. For Violeta Aragón of Living Costa del Sol (visitacostadelsol.com/living), the unique fusion of nationalities means everyone is welcome. "No one's really a foreigner here and you get a great mix of Spanish culture and traditions alongside those from abroad," she says.
Quality is an adjective that crops up often when Marbella residents (and visitors) talk about the resort. Quality environment - as well as the mild climate, Marbella is Europe's second greenest city and has a low-rise skyline. Quality infrastructure comes in its good road connections and proximity to Malaga Airport with direct flights to over 120 destinations every week. Julia Reyna of agent Reyna Marbella (reynamarbella.com) agrees. "Marbella has many strong points, but hugely important to me is Marbella's incredible vitality whenever you visit," she says. "Add the excellent facilities to the great weather and an amazing mix of cultures and you've got a great combination."
Resurgent property market
Hand in hand with this quality lifestyle and booming tourism goes Marbella's property market. Like the rest of Spain, the resort experienced a boom-to-bust scenario in 2008 when the property market fell through the floor. Seven years later, however, things look very different and unlike most of Spain, Marbella's market is recovering fast. All agents report a significant upturn in interest and sales this year after a slow but steady trickle in 2013. Mr Clover says business is soaring, an opinion echoed by the Preeces who sold the same number of properties between January and April this year, as they did in the whole of 2013. But a returning market doesn't necessarily translate into rising prices and Marbella has had a dramatic reality check when it comes to price tags.
Agent consensus is that the highs of 2006-7 are still history with current prices hovering around 30 to 40 per cent below these. There are signs of slight increases though. Reyna believes that the market has stabilised on the back of new confidence -"prices are now just starting to edge up" she says. Clover sees a shortage in the plus €3 million market that is tightening prices and notices that sellers are starting to rethink their asking prices. Confidence is key to the market. Not just on a general economic level, but also in Marbella as a property investment destination. The resort had more than its fair share of corruption associated with property in the past and the ringleaders in the council-led scandals from 1991 to 2006 were finally sentenced in October last year.
Since 2007, the city council and the regional government have worked hard to rectify the situation in Marbella. A revised town plan was approved in 2010 and all developments affected by previous fraudulent practices were given legal status. "Since the authorities revised urban planning in the city, buying property in Marbella has turned a corner," says José Sánchez of Andalusian Lawyers (andalusianlawyers.com) "and buyers can now rest assured their purchases are 100 per cent legal. However, it's still vital your lawyer does a thorough background check on the property to ensure its legal status is sound." Despite Marbella's reputation as a high-end resort, your euros can go a long way here.
There's a reasonable choice of apartments in the €150k-250k bracket and in good locations such as Nueva Andalucía with its proximity to Puerto Banús or beach developments such as Gran Bahía in the east. A slightly higher budget opens possibilities up to different properties including townhouses and penthouses, and then once you clear €600,000, the sky's the limit and you can spend over €10 million in places like La Zagaleta and Sierra Blanca. In terms of location, Clover advises thinking of your purchase as an investment in your lifestyle and choosing "a quality, consolidated area".
Reyna agrees and warns against buying on a holiday-focused development. "These can be desolate out of season," she says, "and it's ultimately better to buy a smaller property in a nicer area." Buying to let is a proposition worth thinking about because holiday lets in Marbella can produce excellent rental returns - a property in a good location can easily command €1,500 a week in high season. High visitor figures fill booking calendars. To attract holidaymakers all year round (and have somewhere nice to stay yourself when you visit), choose a property near the beach and ideally, within walking distance to amenities. Or consider a golf property - "these have the best year-round potential," says Reyna, "and less wear and tear because golfers are usually out!"
This article features in the Summer 2014 edition of A Place in the Sun magazine.