From the terrace of the 19th-century lighthouse, the scene is unchanged from last year. Children play in the gentle surf, couples take advantage of the shade of a Canary Island date palm tree, and adventurous explorers make their way back from the Maspalomas Dunes nature reserve. At the foot of the lighthouse, a sculptor carves out a wall lizard in the sand, hoping for donations.
Yet turn inland and many of the hotels are shuttered. The apartments and private houses of Playa del Ingles have only handymen in them, cutting down dead branches from palm trees and tending to swimming pools. The few pedestrians who pass by are either wearing face masks or have them conveniently wrapped around their upper arms, ready to slip on when they come close to others or enter buildings, and the traffic is non-existent.
According to tourism chiefs, the situation is unlikely to change before the autumn at the earliest. The reason is obvious, but what can the Canary Islands do to prepare itself for the return of tourism, and what should it do, if anything, to encourage it?
FOR ALL SEASONS
In one sense, the encouragement is already there in the form of the natural attractions that have made the Canary Islands so popular in recent decades. Tourists come for the climate, the facilities, the service, the food and drink, the range of accommodation options – from affordable to luxury – and the ease of access from across Europe. Or, at least, they did come, before Covid-19.
All resorts and economies are grappling with the pandemic, but in Europe, perhaps, the Canary Islands’ situation is unique. The Balearic Islands have been badly hit, but their peak season is the summer, which means 2020 is pretty much a write-off. The Canaries still have hope, however, because their location – part of Spain, but off the coast of North Africa – means that as well as having a summer season they also have the climate for a popular autumn, winter and spring. With 16 million visitors in 2019, and tourism making up about 35 per cent of its GDP, it is a hope worth nurturing.
As a result, the government of the Canary Islands has been working to form a strategy to reopen to tourism, even while the pandemic intensifies in many parts of the world, and despite local outbreaks in mainland Spain and, in late July, the sudden imposition of a quarantine on travellers returning to the UK from the islands. In doing so, it has to balance the need to have the necessary safety protocols in place while at the same time reassuring both holidaymakers and residents. Within that, there’s the recognition that if safety plays too high a part in the experience – if, for example, people feel uncomfortable wearing a mask for most of their holiday, or at least when they are in public places – then they are unlikely to encourage others to visit.
Yet the islands can’t simply wait for things to change of their own accord. “Tourism brings €7 million to the archipelago every single day, and 300,000 families on the islands depend on this industry as a source of income,” Carlos Ortega, the civil servant charged with creating a new safety protocol for leisure companies, told the Guardian in July. “The Canary Islands’ Plan A is tourism.”
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September - October 2020