In the early decades of the century the first hotels were built in Marbella. The El Comercial, which opened in 1918, and the Miramar, which opened its doors in 1926.
After the second world war, Marbella was a small jasmine-lined village with only 900 inhabitants. Ricardo Soriano, Marquis of Ivanrey, moved to Marbella and popularized it among his rich and famous friends. In 1943 he acquired a country estate located between Marbella and San Pedro called El Rodeo. Later he built a resort there called Venta y Albergues El Rodeo, beginning the development of tourism in Marbella.
Soriano’s nephew, Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, descendant of a high-ranking aristocratic family acquired another estate, Finca Santa Margarita. In 1954 he opened the Marbella Club, an international resort aimed at movie stars, business executives and the nobility. Both these resorts would be frequented by members of European aristocratic families. thereby transforming Marbella into a destination for the international jet set. Trading on Prince Alfonso’s kinship to the royal courts of Europe, the hotel quickly proved to be popular with vacationing members of Europe’s social elites for its casual but discreet luxury.
In 1966, Prince Alfonso brought in a Beverly Hills architect and, with the assistance of the Banus family, who were personal friends of dictator Francisco Franco and had already developed the later-controversial Valle de los Caídos, developed the high-end tourist resort Puerto Banus. The resort opened to much fanfare in 1970. Celebrities in attendance included Franco’s designated successor, Juan Carlos (then Prince of Asturias), Prince Rainier of Monaco and his wife Grace Kelly, and Aga Khan IV; entertainers included Julio Iglesias. In 1973, exiled dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar, who had left Cuba with a fortune estimated at between $100 and $300 million and lived extravagantly in various Iberian resorts, died of a heart attack there. Fugitive financier Marc Rich bought a house in Marbella, renounced his American citizenship and claimed Spanish citizenship during his decades of evading American income taxes, although he spent more time (and died) in Switzerland.
The 1980s and 90s
In the 1980s, Marbella continued as a popular jet set destination. However, the 1987 kidnapping of Melodie Nakachian, the daughter of local billionaire philanthropist Raymond Nakachian and the Korean singer Kimera, focused less-favourable international media scrutiny on Marbella, even though a police raid ultimately freed her.
In 1991, the builder and president of Atlético Madrid, Jesús Gil was elected mayor of Marbella by a wide majority. He and his party, the right-wing populist Independent Liberal Group (‘Grupo Independiente Liberal’ or GIL in Spanish), promised to fight petty crime as well as the region’s declining prestige. Actor Sean Connery became Marbella’s international spokesman, although Connery later ended this business relationship after Gil used his image in an election campaign. Gil’s administration facilitated a building boom. However, critics complained about disregard for the existing urban plan, market speculation and environmental predation by developers; the regional Andalusian government suspended some development. Gil despised town-hall formalities, instead ruling from his office at the Club Financiero, and cultivated a maverick image. The PSOE and the People’s Party criticized Gil even at the national level, but voters re-elected him—and Spanish celebrities continued to spend summers there. Gil’s political party, GIL, also proved popular in other tourist-dependent Costa del Sol towns like Estepona, and even across the Strait of Gibraltar to the Spanish North African cities of Ceuta and Melilla.
In 1999, Gil was convicted of embezzling public funds and falsifying public documents. Gil died in 2004, and his party remained in power until 2006, but related scandals continue to this day.