Many visitors to the Canary Islands may be too overawed by the scenery and dazzled by sunlight to examine any frays in the social fabric. The islands bring in a vast amount of wealth, but this capital remains unevenly distributed through communities. High unemployment and a shaky welfare system are realities for many locals, and you can add in a mood of uncertainty generated by Brexit. A host of positive environmental measures, including huge investment in wind power, however, are beginning to have a beneficial impact.
The classic double-edged sword, tourism continues to represent an essential pillar of the economy of the Canary Islands, with over 32% of Canarian economic activity linked to it. More than 14 million visitors passed through the islands in 2017, with the majority heading to a single island: Tenerife. But with almost 40% of visitors to the Canary Islands in 2016 arriving from the UK, Brexit storm clouds have been darkening economic predictions, especially as the slumping British pound took the wind from British travellers’ sails in 2018. The fear of British holidaymakers saying adiós to the Canary Islands prompted the local government to consider sweeteners such as exempting British holidaymakers from paying IGIC (Canary Indirect General Tax). It is estimated the move – if it comes into effect – could cost around €100 million a year, but is considered to be money well spent. Elsewhere, however, there are signs that overtourism could be becoming a problem. A sustainable tourism tax could be in the offing too, similar to the tax recently introduced by the Balearic Islands to help control visitor numbers and provide money for environmental protection and heritage conservation.
The Land of Black Skies
With their blustery trade winds keeping clouds on the go, the Canary Islands are home to some of the clearest night skies in Europe. Indeed, with Fuerteventura recently added to the list, there are now three Unesco-protected Starlight Reserves on the Canary Islands (the other two are La Palma and the highlands of Tenerife). Stargazers and astrophotographers will find themselves in seventh heaven, beneath skies of exceptional clarity, so if you ever wanted that time-lapse shot of the Milky Way doing its thing, now’s your chance. To meet the increasing demand, a growing number of astronomy tours (some provided by hotels) are available for anyone keen to observe the night skies. The world’s third-largest solar telescope is on Tenerife, and the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma is located in one of the best positions for optical and infrared astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere.
Politics & the Economy
The main force in Canary Islands politics since its first regional election victory in 1993 has been the Coalición Canaria (CC). A large source of social discontent is unemployment, which is highly visible on some of the islands. The number of people out of work spiralled to a shocking 33.2% in 2013, but by 2018 this rate had fallen to 20% (albeit 5% to 6% above the national rate for Spain). Ironically, one of the causes of small businesses failing is directly related to tourism as, increasingly, hotels are offering all-inclusive deals, which means many visitors rarely venture beyond their resorts.
Migration from Africa had stabilised for several years; however, immigration figures for 2018 showed a four-fold increase on the previous year, partly due to the EU spending huge amounts of money severing land routes in North Africa. With over 1200 migrants arriving between January and November 2018, the figures remain a fraction of the 32,000 arrivals in 2006, when on some days several hundred Africans would reach the islands in rickety wooden boats, but they may presage the return of a contentious issue.
The huge megaport of Granadilla in Tenerife opened in 2017, after the European commission pledged €67 million for its construction. This was despite more than 5000 official complaints, mainly from ecological groups concerned about the port's impact on the fauna and flora of the Los Sebadales area, as well as on nearby beaches and the local fishing industry. Allegations surfaced in 2017 that a resort in Gran Canaria had imported sand, in defiance of international law, from Western Sahara.
On the flipside, the islands are investing massively in wind farms, with wind power growing by almost 140% between 2015 and 2018. In addition to its onshore wind energy infrastructure, the Canary Islands aims to achieve 300MW of offshore wind capacity by 2025, a target date for increasing the proportion of renewable energy in its energy mix to 45%.
El Hierro continues to flaunt its evergreen credentials: it was recently designated a Unesco geopark in recognition of the island's noteworthy progress in promoting sustainable development, and it aims to become the world's first energy-self-sufficient island via a combination of solar, wind and water power.