When visitors return to the Canary Islands, they will find both the journey and the destination have changed.
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.”
Part of that Plan A is setting itself up as a “Global Tourism Safety Lab”, with the aim of “redesign[ing] each and every link in the holiday experience” to adapt to the post-Covid situation. The islands represent an ideal “scenario for working on analysis and verification”, the tourist board says, thanks to their “high capacity for controlling the movement of people (access limited to airports and ports), extensive experience with international tourism, and the response capacity of its business sector”. Whether you feel comfortable paying to be one of the test subjects depends on your appetite for travel, and your attitude to risk. I have friends and relatives who thought me “mad” to do so, and others who were jealous, so there’s a whole spectrum.
The second consideration is whether you feel comfortable travelling when the travel advice can change so quickly. Some holidaymakers have been caught out already, heading to a country only to find the advice changed while they were there. And although some insurers may cover Covid expenses if you were stuck abroad, many will not.
In mid-July, we travelled with Iberia from London to Madrid before taking a flight with tourism officials the next day to Gran Canaria. We were with Spanish government ministers as well as UN World Tourism Organisation representatives, including Zurab Pololikashvili, its secretary-general. At a press conference that evening, Pololikashvili estimated that the number of international tourists to the islands would fall by 80 per cent in 2020. It was as if someone had turned up the air conditioning, such was the chill in the air. On the same platform, Angel Victor Torres, president of the Canary Islands, said there was a plan in place to inject a “massive” fund into its tourism sector.
The experience of flying during the pandemic differs with every airline, but there are new formalities and regulations in place before the journey and some people may be discouraged from travelling. At the time I went, for Spain you had to fill in a health declaration form, which required the sort of information you would normally give if applying for a visa, as well as details of the hotels you intended to stay in and the seat you had occupied on the aircraft. For that reason, you had to wait until you had checked in for your flight to complete the form, and if there were any problems, then you were filling it in on arrival in Madrid. For a family of four, this could be quite a hurdle. And then, of course, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) then changed its advice for Spain (see panel, right).
When travel does restart, in Madrid airport you will hear repeated instructions to maintain a safe distance at all times and to keep face masks on. Wearing a mask is a small thing from one point of view, but when you wear it for the whole journey, from your taxi or train to the airport to the time you spend in the terminal, the flight itself (apart from to eat and drink), immigration, collecting luggage and your onward journey, it is not pleasurable – and people go to the Canary Islands for pleasure.
For hoteliers on the islands, there is a split between those who want to open as soon as possible to try to salvage whatever revenue they can, and those who are not going to do so until at least October. For the latter group, as well as the safety question, there’s also the worry that Spain’s furlough scheme may not allow as much flexibility as, say, the UK’s one when it comes to re-employing staff.
There is also a realisation that for reopening efforts to be successful, the Spanish people in general, and Canary Islanders in particular, need to be convinced that safety comes first. It is one thing to promote #CanariasFortaleza (Fortress Canaries) against the virus, but another to then invite millions of tourists back from across Europe. At the press conference, it was clear that the focus was on reassuring the domestic audience, since despite the presence of the international media, Spain’s minister of industry, trade and tourism, Reyes Maroto, read a prepared speech in Spanish, took two questions in Spanish, and then left without waiting for her speech to be translated.
We stayed at the Santa Catalina (barcelo.com), a historic hotel in the centre of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the island’s capital. It had reopened only a few days before, after being closed from March to the beginning of July. As our coach pulled in through the narrow gates and drove up through the grounds to the entrance, a burgundy-liveried doorman was waiting, along with the white shock of his face mask. There was still a smile of welcome – you could tell from a certain wrinkling around the eyes – but it was an immediate reminder of the new protocols in place. There were hand sanitiser stations at the entrance and our temperatures were taken before we were admitted.
In the hotel room, all paper had been removed, including the room service list and even the TV menu. When you left your room, invariably you would have to return seconds later, realising you had forgotten your mask, while at the restaurant you would be asked to sanitise your hands before taking your seat. At some restaurants we visited, in fact, a staff member would be on hand to dispense it straight on to your hands to ensure compliance.
Breakfast buffets still exist, at least in some hotels (others have reverted to table service only), but expect your cutlery to be wrapped in plastic and your plate to be waiting at the table, meaning you take your plate to the buffet, with your mask on, then return, remove the mask, eat, and repeat for the next serving. There is a one-way system around the buffet, so no doubling back to pick up something else. At lunchtime, the menu may be presented on an iPad, which is presumably wiped clean between each use. At the end of the meal, you will see spray being used to clean the seat you have just vacated.
For some, all of this will spoil the relaxed experience they were seeking, and they will remain at home until a vaccine has been discovered. For others, it is an inconvenience that is worth enduring to be able to get away. I was in Gran Canaria for only 36 hours but after four months of working from home, even flying via Madrid and spending most of my time working remotely felt like a real break from the daily grind. The frustrations are minor ones. It is like someone has rearranged the furniture in your house: it is recognisably the same place, but you keep banging into chairs and tables that aren’t where you were expecting.
And then, when the day is done, you can dine outside – in my case, at Casa Fataga on the main Santa Catalina square (bodegoncasafataga.com). The food was good, as was the wine, and being able to socialise and swap stories with the rest of my group, for a few hours at least, made it all worth it.
During the evening I asked what the restaurant’s name meant and our host, Sergio Maccanti from the Gran Canaria Convention Bureau, told me it was named after a beautiful village in the interior of the island, a “white” village of tiled roofs and cobbled streets that was popular with artists, and showed me a picture on his phone. But then, he said, probably another reason was that in the old days Fataga was halfway between the villages of the interior and the coast, and so became a popular meeting point, with friends and families splitting the distance between them.
In time, for generations of Canarians, the name of the village became shorthand for a meeting place, somewhere to enjoy others’ company and often a place where family parties would take place. And, at its best, that’s what travel can be – the chance to meet others, to relax, and sometimes to celebrate. The Canary Islands will be hoping that sometime this year there is something to celebrate. And perhaps some of us will be there to join in.
CURRENT FCO ADVICE
At the end of July, overnight, the UK changed its travel advice towards Spain, warning against all non-essential travel to the Spanish mainland. This invalidated insurance that people had taken out, forcing most of them to cancel their holidays. The Canary (and Balearic) Islands were not included, initially, and then a day later were added.
The effect was felt throughout the travel industry, with bookings and cancellations not just for Spanish trips but also for France, Germany and Italy as consumers realised that it may happen to their own plans as well. At the time of going to press, the advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth remains in force, despite active campaigning from mainland Spain, the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands.