This image juxtaposes an official record of the Francoist concentration camp in Torremolinos with a current aerial view of the location.

A Leisurely Amnesia: The Transformation of Torremolinos

27 May, 2024

Torremolinos, a bustling resort town on Spain’s Costa del Sol, attracts millions of tourists yearly with its vast beaches and nightlife. Yet beneath the surface of this modern leisure destination lies a darker, often overlooked history. The site of today’s Aqualand water park was once a Francoist concentration camp, a reminder of Spain’s turbulent past that has been largely erased from collective memory.


From Chains to Waves

During the Spanish Civil War, between 1938 and 1939, Torremolinos was home to a concentration camp where thousands of political prisoners and war captives were held under dire conditions. Recent discoveries by historian Carlos Blanco and regional journalists, including official reports and invoices, have confirmed the camp’s existence and detailed its funding by the National Defense Ministry. These findings challenge previous attempts to downplay the severity of the camp, revealing it as an official site of confinement during both the war and the early years of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

Today, the land where these prisoners once endured unimaginable hardships has been transformed into Aqualand, a popular water park established during the late years of Spain’s Transition to democracy. This change from a site of repression to one of recreation is emblematic of a broader trend in Spain’s journey from dictatorship to democracy—a transition often characterized more by a desire to forget than to remember.


The Economics of Forgetting

The rapid development of Torremolinos as a tourist hotspot began in the 1950s as part of Franco’s efforts to modernize Spain’s economy through mass tourism, agro-industry, and construction. These sectors became the pillars of what was known as the “Spanish economic miracle,” contributing significantly to the country’s GDP. However, this economic boon came with significant social and environmental costs, many of which are still being reckoned with today.

The transformation of the concentration camp into a water park serves as a potent symbol of this era’s contradictions. While the economic benefits of tourism are undeniable, the shift from a place of suffering to one of leisure also hides the historical realities that shaped these spaces. The glossy veneer of modernity and economic progress often obscures these realities.


Reflective Tourism

As Spain grapples with its past, the story of Torremolinos offers a compelling case for more reflective tourism. Like many other sites across the country, Aqualand sits at the intersection of historical memory and contemporary leisure. Recognizing and integrating this history into the tourist experience could offer a richer understanding of Spain’s journey through the 20th century.

There are precedents for such integration. In Berlin, for example, sites of former atrocities have been preserved and contextualized, providing educational opportunities alongside the city’s vibrant culture. Spain could benefit from a similar approach, ensuring that places like Aqualand acknowledge their complex histories rather than hiding them beneath waves of tourists.


Moving Forward

The current state of Torremolinos, juxtaposing past horrors with present pleasures, invites us to reflect on how societies remember and forget. It challenges us to consider the responsibilities that come with economic development and the ethical implications of transforming sites of trauma into spaces of enjoyment.

As visitors splash in the waters of Aqualand, they are unwittingly connected to a deeper, often hidden narrative of struggle and survival. By bringing this history to light, we can foster a more informed and conscientious approach to tourism that honors the past while engaging thoughtfully with the present.