'My misery, your paradise': The problem with tourism in the Canary Islands

'My misery, your paradise': The problem with tourism in the Canary Islands
By: Sky International Posted On: April 28, 2024 View: 394

A wave of demonstrations have swept the Canary Islands as locals protested against a tourism model they say has plundered the environment, priced them out of housing and forced them into precarious work.
The seven main Canary Islands are home to 2.2 million people - and welcomed almost 14 million international visitors in 2023, up 13% from the previous year.
The protests were not aimed at individual tourists, activists say, but at the governments that have created a system that skews so much in favour of investors at the expense of local communities.
The tourism industry accounts for 35% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the Canary Islands and local residents who spoke to Sky News agree the islands can't survive without tourism.
But they are also questioning whether local communities and the environment can survive if things stay the way they are.
What's the problem? Tourism is a 'cash cow' - but not for locals
If you're looking for what's behind the wave of protests, you need to look back decades, Sharon Backhouse tells Sky News.
Along with her Canarian husband, she owns GeoTenerife, which runs science field trips and training camps in the Canary Islands and conducts research into sustainable tourism.
Sharon Backhouse, director of GeoTenerife. Pic: GeoTenerife
Image: Sharon Backhouse, director of GeoTenerife. Pic: GeoTenerife
The tourism model in the Canary Islands hasn't been updated since before the tourism boom of the 1980s, when the islands were "trying desperately" to attract investment, she explains.
The answer back then was a model that was "incredibly generous" to investors, who only pay 4% tax and can send the profits earned in the Canaries back to the firm's home country, Ms Backhouse explains.
But the model hasn't changed.
That's created a situation where "more and more of these giant, all inclusive resort hotels" are being built, and the proceeds of this "incredible cash cow" aren't shared equitably with the local population, she says.
"It is absurd to have a system where so much money is in the hands of a very few extremely powerful groups, and is then funnelled away from the Canary Islands," she says.
"We're seeing really low salaries, zero-hour contracts and awful working conditions in some of these hotels."
Ms Backhouse was at the 20 April protest in Tenerife and says she has "never seen anything like it" in terms of Canarians being united for a single cause.
'My misery, your paradise'
Earlier this year there was a spate of graffiti in Tenerife.
Andy Ward, director of Tenerife Estate Agents, tells Sky News the media coverage of a smattering of "tourists go home" graffiti has been "100x greater than the on-the-ground reality", where there is little visible animosity.
But there was one spray-painted message that sums up the gulf between Canary Islands residents and the tourists who flock there: "My misery, your paradise".
More than a third of the population of the Canary Islands - nearly 800,000 people - are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, according to a recent report from the environmental group Ecologists in Action.
The average wage for restaurant staff and cleaners is between €1,050 and €1,300 a month, Mr Ward says, while the cost of renting an apartment can be almost as much.
'Shanty towns' in the shadow of luxury
One of the main issues is the dearth of affordable or social housing, Mr Ward says.
"The governments here have completely neglected this need, instead selling land for more hotels and selling land for luxury villas and high-end apartments, which locals are unable to afford."
What has caused anger is property managers renting out properties to tourists that are "completely inappropriate and inadequate", such as small apartments in residential buildings.

Protest against tourism in Canaries on 20 April
The regulations on short-term lets "are a complete mess and a mish-mash", he says. Landlords aren’t incentivised to let their properties long-term because they must sign up to long leases, and if tenants default on the rent it can take 18 months to evict them.
His views are echoed by Kris Jones, a British citizen who was born in Tenerife, taking over the bar his parents owned in Playa de la Americas, the Drunk’n Duck.
Many hotel employees are forced to live in the multiple motorhome sites that have popped up around the south of the island because they can’t afford anything else, he says.
"Shanty towns" is what Ms Backhouse calls them, built in the shadow of "uber luxury hotels".
Mr Jones questions why planning permission has been granted to hotels without ensuring their employees will be able to live nearby.
He says the idea the island's population hates foreign visitors is "utter garbage".
He stresses that the protests were against the government - not tourists.
"It's nothing to do with the behaviour of British tourists, and isn't even part of the agenda at all," he tells Sky News.
Hunger strike to stop hotels
Protesters say they are having to take increasingly drastic actions to have their voices heard.
Subsequently six members of Canarias Se Agota - which translates to the Canary Islands Are Exhausted - have been on hunger strike since 11 April.
Pic:Europa Press/AP
Image: Activists linked arms in Tenerife on 11 April to mark the start of hunger strike. Pic: Europa Press/AP
As well as demanding a halt to new tourism developments and a limit to the number of visitors, the campaigners want to stop the development of two luxury resorts in Tenerife.
Both developments faced legal hurdles on environmental grounds that had paused construction, but stop work orders were lifted earlier this year.
Campaigners maintain the developments breach environmental laws - claims the developers deny - and have committed to continuing the hunger strike until the government intervenes, despite some strikers needing hospital treatment.
The hunger strikers, who have not been named, were among fellow protesters on the streets of Tenerife on 20 April.
A spokesperson for the campaign said: "If anything happens to any of our comrades... you (Fernando Clavijo - president of the Canary Islands) will have to face the fury of the people."
The strikers met with the Canary Islands president on 23 April, but their demands were rejected.
Representatives of the strikers said on 26 April the "medical condition of the six is deteriorating, but they are determined to continue" until their demands are met.
Protesters are also demanding "access to respectable housing", an "eco-tax" and "immediate measures to put an end to the raw sewage discharges into the sea".
Salvar La Tejita, an environmental organisation which helped organise the mass protest, says: "It is vital to clarify that these protests are not against the tourists or tourism in general, but are against the political class, administrations, hotel chains, and constructors who are jointly responsible for the unsustainable circumstances which Tenerife is now in.
"This platform is not in any way responsible for the graffiti messages 'Tourists Go Home' which have been sprayed in and around many tourist resorts.
The environmental cost of tourism
The Canary Islands are a "biodiversity jewel in the Atlantic", Ms Backhouse says - but they haven't been fully protected or valued.
Politicians in the past have said the development of the controversial resorts can't be stopped "just because of a weed", she says.
"These aren't just weeds. What they're actually doing is interfering with an ecosystem which will have difficulty surviving if you plonk a resort right in the middle of it."
The building of these resorts has an environmental costs as "beautiful landscapes are cemented over", Ms Backhouse says - and the cost only mounts once they open.
A man plays a conch in a traditional way during a demonstration for a change in the tourism model in the Canary Islands, in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain, April 20, 2024. Pic: Reuters/Borja Suarez
Image: A man plays a conch in a traditional way during demonstration. Pic: Reuters
"The problem with these resorts is that we just don't have enough resources in terms of water, what happens to all the rubbish, how is it all recycled.
"Locals are feeling disenfranchised from their spaces because it all becomes tourist territory.
"Towns and villages that locals grew up in or would go on holiday in suddenly are completely unrecognisable."
What solutions are on the table?
One of the proposals is a tourist tax which would be invested in protecting the environment.
Ms Backhouse says the hotel industry is against it and the government is nervous about it - but GeoTenerife's research indicates it wouldn't put tourists off.
"I think the reality is very few people will cancel their holiday because they have to pay a little bit of money that goes towards protecting the landscapes they're coming to see."
Hoteliers have proposed instead putting up IGIC, which is similar to VAT, but Ms Backhouse says that isn't welcomed by campaigners "because again, that just puts the onus on the locals to prop up the system".
A tourist tax is one part of the answer to protect the environment, but it doesn't answer the question of job insecurity and unaffordable housing.
Ms Backhouse says it is encouraging to see solutions proposed, but "it's going to take something far more wide-ranging to put this train on a more sustainable track".
Impending crackdown on holiday homes
A draft law is expected to be passed this year which would ban newly built properties from becoming short-term rentals and toughen up the rules for existing properties.
It comes as official figures show the number of rental beds on the island reached 220,409 in March this year - an increase of more than 40,000 from the same point in 2023.
Pic: Europa Press/AP
Image: Pic: Europa Press/AP
Canaries regional tourism chief Jessica de Leon told the Reuters news agency that enforcement support for the islands' 35 inspectors is key to the success of the new rules.
"We are going to empower [the police] so that they can act when fraudulent behaviour is detected in homes," she said, adding that the plan could involve 1,300 people, which would include all of the islands' police forces.
"The first step is to contain the growth, the second is to clean up [existing listings]," said Canaries director of tourism Miguel Rodríguez.
An example of the crackdowns to come occurred on 16 April, when police raided a property in Tenerife after its owner was reported for listing the building's rooftop as a campsite on Airbnb, offering renters tents for €12 (£10) a night.
The plans have not proved popular with landlords, who would be forced to comply with the new rules within five years.
"Everything that the government is trying to impose is problematic," says a spokesperson for Ascav, the Canary Islands Vacation Rental Association, adding it is "the most restrictive" legislation of its kind in Europe.
They believe around 95% of the existing holiday homes that abide by current laws will not be able to meet the new criteria, which includes getting consent from local authorities to open, meeting higher energy classification thresholds, having a minimum surface area and more in a long list of "impossible compliance".
"The consequences will be immediate," they warn. "If holiday homes are banned on the islands, visitors who demand this type of accommodation will choose other destinations, Canary Islanders will be even poorer, bars, restaurants, rent a cars, supermarkets, leisure activities, etc. will lose economic activity. Undoubtedly, we all lose."
Ascav acknowledges "something is going wrong" for the island's economy, but argues it's not down to those providing holiday homes, nor the tourists Canarians "love".
"The message is for our governments, for their passivity, incompetence and lack of planning," they say.
"They are the ones that have allowed that the resources of tourism has not to been shared with the local population. Locals has been excluded because governments preferred permitting to exploit the territory and tourism to the maximum, without any return for the islands and their inhabitants.
"The solution is to listen to ourselves, to listen to our visitors, to listen and protect to the Canary islanders, to integrate, to plan, to be sustainable, to grow with, not at the expense of, to be responsible for the territory and the well-being of its people, to diversify, to ensure the quality of the destination.
"Our problems have to be resolved by politicians, but they lack will and predisposition, that's why we are fed up."
What have politicians said?
The islands' president said the day before the 20 April protests that he felt "proud" the region is a leading Spanish tourism spot, but acknowledged more controls are needed.
"We can't keep looking away. Otherwise, hotels will continue to open without any control," Fernando Clavijo told a news conference.
Two days after the protest, Mr Clavijo posted on X saying: "What happened last Saturday in the streets of Canarias leaves a message that we share. Canarias has to review its model, where we want to go.
"It had to be done during the pandemic, but it is a challenge that we assumed and on which we are already working with the councils, with the city councils and that we must face as a whole in society."
He has called a meeting of island presidents and Canary Island administrators on 30 April in the hope of finding a solution.

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