Cartagena (Spain). “Discovering the past in order to build the future through memory and tourism”

Francisco J. Morales Yago y Antonio Zárate Martín


Cartagena: Overview of the old town and its tourism-led renewal –

© Antonio Zárate

The city of Cartagena is located in south-east Spain on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and, ever since its foundation in the 3rd century BC, two key threads have run right through its extensive history. The first of these is its use as a military base, drawing on the magnificent strategic advantages it offers, which include its natural deep water harbour and the topography of the surrounding area. The latter is made up of the so-called cinco cerros, five hills which form a very significant natural barrier to possible invaders from the interior, making this location much easier to defend. From the 18th century onwards, Cartagena has been a naval base and the headquarters in the Mediterranean for the Spanish navy, and also the location for one of its most important shipyards.

The second thread is its involvement in industry from ancient times onwards, with mining being undertaken in the Carthaginian and Roman periods, most notably for silver, and with its hinterland comprising of fertile farmland. Shipbuilding, mining, and the arrival of chemical and petrochemical companies in the region made it a key industrial centre in the 1960s, with the late 1970s seeing decline set in. The partial dismantling of this industry in the following decade, together with mine closures and the shipyards losing business, led to a period of decadence for the city, manifesting itself in high unemployment rates and the abandonment and deterioration of many buildings. This period also saw the emptying of the city’s historic centre, the aging of its population and a massive influx of people with little purchasing power and foreign immigrants.

As industrial and military activity decreased in the 1980s, the city’s economy began to change. The recovery began through the establishment of new economic activities via the strengthening of service offerings, such as the expansion of the polytechnic university, the establishment of the parliament of the Region of Murcia and the building of shopping developments, but also something which had not been considered before: tourism. This was based on the city’s history and the search for the physical evidence of a past full of significant events. These changes were largely the result of an urban regeneration plan whose main objective was to demolish old structures in the city centre in order to uncover the remains of buildings from the Carthaginian, Roman and Byzantine periods. Due attention was also paid to the historic bastions of the walls which surrounded the bay and the arsenal was opened to visitors. All of this can be seen in the first photograph.

Until the beginning of the 21st century, a large part of Cartagena’s old town continued to be a decaying and deprived area and, with it being closely associated with drugs, prostitution, crime and low social standing, most city residents thought it a place best avoided. The area began to change for the better after the discovery in 1988 of the Roman theatre and its subsequent restoration by means of various archaeological digs. After more than two decades, the result of this effort to restore the city’s heritage and regenerate the city itself has been the establishment of a different kind of urban area to that which was known before, with it now being held to be of enormous cultural and scenic value. Moreover, while this urban renewal has led to the uncovering of hidden historical heritage of exceptional value (for example, the Roman theatre and basilica in the foreground of the photograph), from a functional point of view the consequence has been to transform an industrial and military city into a city offering services and which is attractive to tourists, leading to the creation of new jobs, the building of shopping and leisure developments, the rehabilitation of homes, a gentrification process and the opening of a museum which showcases the objects found during the archaeological digs.

The look of the old historic centre is much different from that of two decades ago. Now, one can see part of the old Roman forum, although this has not been completely restored because of the high costs in terms of both money and time that this would require. In a relatively small space, once can see: Roman buildings; the Gothic 13th century Santa María basilica; ancient homes bearing the arms of noble families; the modernista town hall building built in 1907; museums, such as that of Roman art next to the theatre; and the Muralla del Mar (the sea walls), whose construction was ordered by King Carlos III. Another place of interest is the national museum of underwater archaeology, which was opened in 2008 on the Paseo Alfonso XII, housed in an ultra-modern building which contrasts with the classical image of the city and its harbour.

Santa María Basilica – © Antonio Zárate

The combination of its privileged natural location, in a sheltered bay surrounded by mountains, the shipyards, the 18th century arsenal, the legacy of buildings from different eras, and, especially, the uncovering of the rich heritage which has been partially hidden for centuries under the city has led to ever increasing levels of cultural tourism (257,256 visitors in 2011, of whom the majority, 207,120 or 80.51%, were Spanish and the rest, 19.49%, foreign tourists). Yet the most significant thing is that Cartagena has become a model of exceptional urban regeneration, by means of the restoration of its most ancient historic heritage and through tourism. Thus, tourism has acted as the motor for urban transformation, the restoration of the cultural surroundings and the development of the local economy, something which few would have thought possible not so long ago.

When walking around Cartagena, we can take our minds back to a past which archaeology has revealed. Yet to the undoubted visitor appeal of these buildings, we can also add the opening up to visitors of the arsenal and the old bastions. There are other facets of local heritage to enjoy, such as the Easter processions and the re-enactments of the battles between the Carthaginians and the Romans, in which the city’s inhabitants participate and which attract ever more tourists and visitors. Both festivals have been granted “official tourist attraction status”, with the Easter processions of “international interest” and the re-enactments of “national interest”.




Electronic reference :

Francisco J. Morales Yago y Antonio Zárate Martín, Cartagena (Spain). “Discovering the past in order to build the future through memory and tourism”, Via@, News in brief, posted on 8th July, 2013.



Francisco J. Morales Yago y Antonio Zárate Martín

“CULTURPAIS” research group: http:/

Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED)