Thursday, 18 April 2024 14:44

British "expat" gives insights on the Canary Islands tourism protests

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Over recent weeks the mainstream media has been awash with stories of mass protests against what many see as excessive tourism in the Canary Islands.

While most Brits will think of the Canary Islands in terms of beach holidays the islands are also very popular for hiking and cycling throughout the year. In light of the protests planned (April 20) thought you might like to hear the point of view of an expert on sustainable tourism, Sharon Backhouse, founder and business owner of GeoTenerife? 

Sharon Backhouse from GeoTenerife Sharon Backhouse from GeoTenerife Photo:GeoTenerife

Sharon set up the specialist travel agency GeoTenerife (based in the UK with a wholly-owned subsidiary in Tenerife) 11 years ago. It is ABTA-registered and conducts research, organises training camps and provides educational field trips to Tenerife for school and university groups, primarily from the UK and the USA.  The programmes are run in association with local and international experts and institutions to teach students about geography, geology, volcanology and biodiversity.  Sustainable tourism is a particular focus of their research in the Canary Islands.

Sharon acknowledges that tourism can never be 100 per cent sustainable but believes that tour operators, hoteliers and Canarian Government officials can no longer ignore the needs of the local population.  There can be a ‘middle way’ which benefits tourists and locals alike, if people on all sides are willing to give way a bit. The Canary Islands urgently needs a new tourism model.

What advice does Sharon Backhouse give to British tourists?

  • Come to Tenerife and enjoy your holiday.
  • Book local accommodation where possible.
  • Visit local shops.
  • If you are on an all-inclusive holiday, venture out to local restaurants.
  • Book local tours and experiences.
  • Take your litter away with you.
  • Respect local customs.

Canary Islands tourism

Picture credit:

Further comment from Sharon Backhouse is as follows: 

The Canary Islands are a glorious biodiversity hotspot in the Atlantic, with dramatic volcanic landscapes.  They depend heavily on tourism for their income and are among the world leaders in providing holidays in the sun.  Canarians have warmly welcomed visitors for decades and will continue to do so.

A view above the clouds  A view above the clouds Photo:GeoTenerife

So why are they upset?

The Canary Islands have seen a steep rise in the number of visitors, with over 14 million last year alone.

Canary Island tourism figures for 2024 look even higher than 2023: February alone clocked a 14% increase compared to the same month last year.  And the Canary Island government wants even more, calling for up to a dizzying 23 million a year in a recent report.  All this on a handful of islands in the Atlantic with a resident population of just 2.2 million.

Although Canarians understand the importance of tourism, they want a new model that takes their concerns into account. The current tourism model favours international developers with a record return on their investment and unrivalled occupancy rates year-round. But the islands are straining at the seams.

Large-scale, all-inclusive foreign-owned hotel complexes pay very little tax (just 4%) in the Canary Islands with free repatriation of profits away from the islands and red-carpet treatment not afforded to local entrepreneurs. And it’s big business: the Canary Islands lead the way in Spain’s luxury hotel sector with €1.17 billion invested in the sector here in 2023.

More large-scale resorts are planned in the Canaries, ‘Eco Resorts’ that support sustainable tourism. But their claims often do not stand up to scrutiny and are prime examples of the practice of Greenwashing. (See, for example, the ongoing GeoTenerife research into the planned Cuna del Alma resort in Puertito de Adeje, Tenerife under VolcanoStories on our website:

Despite this influx of foreign cash, the Canary Islands are the second poorest area in Spain with almost 30% living under the poverty line. But the impacts are not just environmental or economic. 

The pressure of higher tourism numbers is impacting everyday life. Traffic jams are now a daily headache for many residents and travellers alike, water restrictions are on the rise and a shortage of affordable housing has led to shanty towns, tents and campervans setting up on the south coast of Tenerife.

Blue water by Luis M. Anibarro for GeoTenerife Blue water by Luis M. Anibarro for GeoTenerife

Jobs in the hotel sector are often precarious and low paid, leading to an uptick in immigration to fill vacancies often shunned by locals, further adding pressure to housing, infrastructure and resources. 

Emotionally, it is hard for locals to be squeezed into the corner by such a large influx of people, compounded by a minority of Instagram thrill seekers who traipse over protected landscapes in search of the perfect shot.

Furthermore, the rise in Airbnb-style accommodation has compounded the issue, with foreigners buying up property for rental and pricing locals out of the market and the construction of social housing has been sidelined on the political agenda for too long.

Local administration representatives and hoteliers are speaking out against the demonstrations, saying that any negative coverage could impact tourism numbers and lead to job losses.  Indeed, some newspaper articles suggest that Canarians are starting ‘a war against British Tourists’, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Field visit with a local expert to study the underground water resources of Tenerife which are under pressure Field visit with a local expert to study the underground water resources of Tenerife which are under pressure Photo: GeoTenerife

What Canarians want is for their concerns to be addressed with a more sustainable tourism model, which will be good for locals and visitors alike in the long run. (And the planet).  We’ve heard local politicians sprinkle their speeches with promises to adopt ‘sustainable tourism practices’ in the future, without taking the time to thoroughly study concrete and effective measures.

This situation in the Canary Islands highlights a global crisis: the conflict between massive tourist development and the preservation of identity, the environment, and the quality of life of local communities.

What’s the solution?

While 100 per cent sustainable solutions for the tourism sector are unrealistic, we can take significant measures to redress the balance, as long as all voices are heard. After all, what’s the point of having a record number of visitors after decades of mass tourism if locals are not prime beneficiaries?

To find out more, read our full report here:

Canarians are shouting. It’s time to listen.