How Brits Fell in Love with European Property

How Brits Fell in Love with European Property

In May 1950, a chartered former Second World War Dakota touched down in Corsica from Gatwick Airport with 11 British holidaymakers on their way to a beach camp near Calvi on the north-west coast of the island.

Most of the intrepid tourists seemed pleased with the cheap wine and tents in which they slept, but less impressed with the six-hour, two-leg journey to get there. Nevertheless, they were on the first modern package tour to be organised as the UK emerged from the grim postwar years.

It was the start of a revolution that would sweep across Europe and later the world. Although well-heeled Brits had been visiting overseas for centuries, the advent of the package holiday offered by companies such as Horizon (who organised the Corsican jaunt), Skytours, Club Med, Thomas Cook and Thomson enabled everyone to enjoywarmer climes.

Fishing villages and small towns that had previously offered only a few hotels or bars were slowly transformed into small cities, a process that started with new hotels and more recently has spread to the building of villas and apartments for sale.

Across the world, 1.2 million Brits now own overseas holiday homes, be they for occasional or near-permanent use. Current estimates put this at 600,000 in Spain; 200,000 in France; 50,000 in Portugal; 50,000 in Italy and a further 300,000 combined in the United States, the rest of Europe and elsewhere. In many of these countries, Brits are often the most common nationality to buy property and this is particularly true in Spain. There, we buy 12 per cent of all property sold to foreigners.

The earliest town to embrace this revolution was Benidorm on the Costa Blanca, which in 1954 was the first Spanish village to be transformed specifically as a tourist resort and with an early “green city plan” put together by its mayor.

In 1954, it had 25,000 inhabitants and was a fast-declining fishing town. Today it has 69,000 residents, of whom 5,400 are British (while several million of their compatriots flood the area every summer). And while an old fishing cottage might have cost less than £5,000 in today’s money in 1954, today a decent two-bedroom apartment will cost between £130,000 and £155,000.

The next Mediterranean holiday destination that Horizon took customers to, in 1951, was Mallorca. And they were not alone – some 3,000 independent and wealthy British holiday-makers visited the island that year; remember a scheduled return flight from the UK then cost £1,500 in today’s money. So for the early package-holiday arrivals this was a select paradise offered for relatively little cost.

The impact on the island of those who followed has been huge. The number of visitors has grown from less than 100,000 in 1973 to more than 2.2 million now and it’s still the top Spanish destination among Brits, who began buying up apartments in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The homebuyers keep coming too; 22,500 Britons now live on the island, while another 35,000 are thought to own holiday homes, according to the developer Taylor Wimpey España. The most dramatic change in fortunes has been within Marbella. During the 1950s it was a struggling former mining town with a pretty waterfront, with a few thousand residents.

Now, it has more than 140,000 permanent inhabitants, a figure that’s inflated by 500,000 tourists during the summer months.

It’s also a city with a reputation for wealth and glitz unparalleled on the Spanish costas, although that in the past has included several corruption scandals leading to three of its mayors ending up in jail.

Brits now make up approximately 10 per cent of the population which is probably in line with other tourist areas in Spain. But it’s house prices that have seen the most explosive growth. Despite recessions during the 1990s and more recently in 2008, both of which featured prices dropping by 25 per cent in parts of the city after the global financial crisis, Malaga’s property prices have held up relatively well. The average price there is about £230,000 — way above Spain’s average house price of £193,000, according to Kyero.

What about Calvi, the original stop for the Horizon tours? Like its Spanish counterparts, the town is now largely dependent on its summer tourism trade but unlike them it hasn’t witnessed an explosion of population and development. It is in part because of the rocky terrain it sits on but also because package tourism didn’t take off on a grand scale. Consequently, it’s still relatively expensive and time-consuming to get there.

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Nigel Lewis


Originally published in the A Place in the Sun magazine - Issue 125