Taking a short stroll along the pedestrian seafront in Costa Teguise today, the impact of the closure of the airbridge between the UK and Spain was starkly apparent. Very few restaurants were open, bars were closed and even the mini market had drawn their shutters. Of course, Mondays are generally a little quiet, but this was extreme.
Notable too was the empty beach. A solitary couple paddled; their clothes folded neatly together on an open acre of sand. The waves were strong this morning but even so, we missed the site of children playing and castles forming. Only one café stirred, serving cocktails to a few local residents and a handful of sturdy British tourists who will face a two-week quarantine when their vacation is over.
As people who have invested our future into the island, we cannot help but fear the fragility of this resort. It’s a British place, the breakfast menus being similar to those you’d find ‘back home’ and the majority of services set to the UK taste. Of course, we have residents here too, but even local housing is priced according to the value of short-term gains. So, what happens when the British leave? Even if only for a short time?
Lanzarote as a whole was a planned destination. Following the extension of the airport runway and the construction of resort facilities, the island boomed in the 1980s and 1990s. Package holidays centred around Puerto Del Carmen became popular and the auxiliary resorts of Playa Blanca and Costa Teguise soon grew to provide thousands of hotel and apartment beds. Throughout though, we remained a “British Favourite” with tourists from other European countries favouring the larger islands or our neighbour, Fuerteventura.
To put this in perspective, our island has a population of around 150,000 permanent residents. Tourism adds another 3million people each year, 45% of whom come from the UK. The next biggest market (with only 14%) is Germany, followed by less than 10% each from Ireland and Spain. The impact on the day that TUI and Jet2 cancelled their flights was therefore extraordinary. Despite the Canary Islands as a whole having the second lowest rate of contagiousness in all of Spain and Lanzarote itself, even less.
The Critical Issue
The truth is, Lanzarote is 2,612.9 km away from the epicentre of the new rise in COVID-19 infections seen in regions such as Cataluña. Yet politically and economically we remain deeply linked to the “mainland”. In times, that link has served us well. This is a highly developed, modern and very European island, despite being only 78 miles from the coast of Saharan Africa. We feel Spanish, even though our landscape is more akin to the moon.
Perhaps here lies the critical issue:
- Lanzarote is Spanish but not Spain.
- Lanzarote is safe but tourism carries risk.
- Lanzarote is deeply European but uniquely British.
We are a destination but also a home where people have lived for multiple generations. We are planned around a link and an economy and a partnership that may not always survive. Today it feels like it has failed and on that empty beach, we ask who we are when the partner departs.
Of course, our situation today is utterly unique. At no other time has modern humanity endured such change over such global terms. Cities rich and poor have adapted, overcome, met and failed against a common enemy in countless, divided ways. Come a vaccine, the certainly of Lanzarote would surely return and this empty week will be forgotten. But should we rest on the hope of that or adapt and change whilst we can see the skeleton around us?
IS there anything else that Lanzarote can do, besides serve fried eggs and a healthy dose of sunshine? Before the tourists came, we were an island of agriculture and fishing. Those industries would certainly not be sufficient to feed the residential population today. Unlike Tenerife and Gran Canaria, we don’t have ‘world class cities’. We don’t have any global corporations. We don’t even really have manufacturing, save some plants that serve very local purpose. What else could we draw on if today became normal?
There were plans some years back to embrace technology here. I personally remember the brochures for the new Tech Parks being constructed in Fuerteventura. We certainly have the space to build such things. The problem of course is the one thing we’re famous for- sunshine and heat. Servers require cooling. Big Dot Coms favour the cold to save on electricity expense. Green Dot Coms (like Facebook and Google) won’t build in a location that can’t be naturally cooled. Even solar power would need to blanket the landscape to be effective enough.
We’re limited too, by language. Some developing islands rely on the low cost of wages to build call-centres and outsourcing facilities. With the primary language being Spanish, we wouldn’t be able to serve the US or UK and the cost of living here for a large workforce is much higher than in other regions of Spain. Even our internet is touch and go, meaning downtime issues for any brave investor. We have the skills to handle commerce and customer service but for who and at what cost?
Of course, we have rocks. We have beautiful rocks. Our natural resource is lava and tonnes of the stuff. But any idea that involves deeper mining will be met with horror when considering the level of protection we hold over those mountains. Movies are still made here because the landscape is unique. To destroy it now for one generation of wealth would be a travesty beyond comprehension. Perhaps though there are gems inside? Does anyone know? Diamonds have been known to form near volcanoes. We jest.
“A Safe Place to Visit”
So back to tourism it is. Marketing Lanzarote as a “safe destination” was the aim of the game in June and July. Whether we still truly are is up for debate. There are cases of COVID-19 here, brought by tourism and immigration. They certainly seem controlled but without testing at airports, the claim of “safety” is always a tough one to make. We wonder of course why the tourist wouldn’t be prepared to pay the small price of a test, but we know too that other destinations don’t enforce one yet. Might it change? It should, perhaps.
Is the route to finding our feet again to turn on our allies? Lanzarote loves the UK. The British people are built into our blood. But if the partnership is so fragile, so difficult here in the new normal, could other nations embrace us? Iceland would be a great match. From safety to safety. Lava to lava. Dark to the light. Perhaps a different kind of tourist altogether, those who focus on science or adventure? We have the stuff that they need. The tubes and the tunnels. Does Elon Musk fancy a trip to our version of the moon?
A Difficult Truth
We must face a difficult truth. Lanzarote was failing before it failed today. Walking the seafront, we feel so at home, but we know too that our facilities lack glamour. We lack prestige and we verge occasionally on retro at times. What Manrique saw is more complicated now, even if we still polish, we still clean, we still paint it all white. It’s not just Costa Teguise but all of our resorts that rely on a “sunshine and tapas” theme that seems a little jaded as people travel further into the world to spend their two weeks.
With COVID-19 hitting us all so hard, there won’t be pools of money to reinvent this place. We need to look deeper. We need to use thought not just words to resell our dream. Safety won’t be enough if the vaccine doesn’t come soon. Perhaps tourism itself has changed for the long-haul. Will just being far away satisfy the soul in the years to come? Part of me thinks it’s Africa we should embrace. Those 78 miles might be useful to us. Are there riches to be found in linking us more to the Sahara rather than further away?
Who can say. Back home I watch over the hills from high up. There is a timelessness here. In-fact from my window, this place won’t have changed for thousands of years. And I’m lucky. Although I live here and invest here, my income comes from software I created back in the UK. My link remains healthy and relatively unharmed. I wonder if that could be built upon- us digital nomads love places of tranquillity, of isolation, where our fingers can click away under the sun. Maybe I’ll invite a few thousand more of my friends!
Today will pass. Tomorrow will come. Lanzarote will always be here. But in what form, for whom, only time will tell…
We eagerly await the return of the UK > Lanza airbridge and urge all tourists to respect our stringent, proactive safety rules for the future of this and all little islands.
Photo taken today, Costa Teguise