‘It’s a question of life’ – Can the Canary Islands safely reboot tourism in a pandemic?


    “It is a question of life,” says Susana Hernandez, a tour guide at the Jameos del Agua caves in Lanzarote.

    fter months of lockdown, when the Canary Islands’ popular tourist hotspots saw no tourists at all, she is happy that visitors are starting to return – albeit at a trickle of normal summer rates.

    But she is also worried that people won’t follow the rules. Her staff don’t want to be rude, Susana tells me. But they have to remind people to follow those rules.

    With that, she tells a young couple that they have to keep their masks on even when taking selfies.

    Welcome to the “new normal”.

    Visiting Lanzarote as a reporter on assignment earlier this month, places like Jameos del Agua, or the popular Jardín de Cactus, felt more peaceful and personal without the crowds.

    But clearly, a lack of tourists has its downsides too.


    A resort entrance in Lanzarote

    As Irish holidaymakers know, the Canaries are heavily dependent on overseas visitors. Since lockdown, the islands have been working to establish themselves as “a world laboratory for tourism safety”.

    Visitor numbers are extremely low however, and this week a further blow to local tourism businesses came in the shape of the UK’s decision to impose a 14-day quarantine on all arrivals from Spain.

    Despite some clustered outbreaks on the mainland, the Canaries are among the Spanish regions that have kept a relatively low Covid-19 caseload (Lanzarote has so far reported just 93 total cases) – leading some to argue that they should be excluded from the decision and, indeed, added to Ireland’s ‘green list’, meaning travellers would not have to restrict their movements on return.

    “The next review of the ‘green list’ gives a good opportunity to include both the Canary and Balearic Islands,” according to Rubén López Pulido, Director of the Spanish Tourist Office in Dublin.

    The Irish Government is still advising against all non-essential travel, of course.

    For that reason, I hadn’t expected to visit the Canary Islands this summer. But when I was invited as a journalist to join a special flight with The Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organisation and Spain’s Tourism Minister, to report on how the tourism industry is coping there, I jumped at the chance.

    Landing into Lanzarote, there was a temperature check via thermographic cameras, plenty of hand-sanitising stations, markers on the floor to help with social distancing and, of course, everyone wore a mask.

    Boarding the coach transfer, we sanitised our hands, and again, wore masks.


    Lanzarote: A barman at work in the “new normal”

    I stayed at the Sands Beach Resort in Costa Teguise. It has 368 rooms, but only 15 were occupied – three by Irish families on holiday. There were no large crowds on the beach and just a handful of restaurants open.

    It felt rather empty for a holiday hotspot, but we were reminded that this is the low season. Lanzarote’s busiest months are October to March when, as Irish holidaymakers know, visitors flock south to the winter sun.

    The next morning, I awoke to what would normally be an unimaginable sight in a resort like this; bare sun loungers with no towels laying claim to them.

    There were no battles at the breakfast buffet, thanks, in part, to some of the food being behind screens with masked staff members dishing up orders. I rather liked this as it helped with portion control and no doubt will reduce food waste too. It also meant there was plenty of food to go around.

    A one-way system was in place too and each table got a small basket of bread rolls and pastries rather than picking from a big open basket in the buffet area.

    The glutton inside me was a little disappointed, but my waistline thankful.

    All staff at the resort wore masks, but guests at the pool area don’t have to as long as a 1.5-metre distance is kept between the different groups. With very few guests, this wasn’t an issue – even the few kids I saw splashing about in the water were having a ball. It was like they had their own private pool.

    When it does get busier, the resort says, the number of people permitted in the pool will be the same as the number of sun loungers, which is reduced to maintain a safe distance between guests.

    Out and about, a lot of the touristy bars and restaurants were shuttered, but plan to reopen when more holidaymakers arrive later in the season. However, places that the locals go to were open, so I looked at this as an opportunity to try regional cuisine I might not have otherwise.

    Dining out looked a little different, but it was also like seeing Lanzarote in a whole new light. Tables were spaced well apart and plates, condiments and cutlery wrapped in plastic – environmental concerns, remember those?

    Some restaurants checked our temperature on entry; others didn’t.

    It felt a little bit clinical, especially as all the staff were wearing masks, but the measurements were very reassuring. As soon as we sat down and took off the mask, and those salty, spicy Canarian potatoes arrived and the local volcanic wine started flowing, holiday mode was momentarily activated.


    Checking in with new Covid-19 safety measures

    That’s exactly what the Canarian Government wants tourists to feel. With its Covid-19 health-and-safety measures, its aim is to ensure tourists get the usual sun, sand and sea with added security. The ‘Global Tourism Safety Lab’ was set up for that purpose – to redesign and adapt tourism activities for the safety of both tourists and residents.

    The island also has a specially-equipped hotel ready to accept anybody that develops Covid-19 symptoms whilst here. If you do develop symptoms, you are asked to self-isolate in your accommodation and call a special phone number, where you will be advised on what to do next to secure the best treatment.

    “It is a question of life,” as Susana Hernandez put it back at Jameos del Agua.

    This week’s UK quarantine announcement will be seen as a setback, but the Canary Islands have a bit more time than most other places to get things right as the majority of tourists don’t arrive until the winter months.

    Sitting down to dinner in Restaurante El Risco in Teguise, where seaside tables catch the sunset, Managing Director of Lanzarote Tourism, Héctor Fernández, told me that the island is doing its best to balance the happiness of holidaymakers and health security.

    He knows that holidays are about happiness and freedom, which is why, in Lanzarote – unlike on the Balearic Islands – no masks are required on beaches and you can relax in the sun and enjoy a cold drink on restaurant and bar terraces without any restrictions.

    Irish people are advised to avoid all non-essential travel for now, but with its open landscape and myriad outdoor activities, he believes Lanzarote will be a great place to holiday once they can.

    Travelling under these conditions isn’t ideal, but it’s clear they are here to stay for a while at least.

    At the end of my trip, I feel positive. The world is uncertain, but I am reminded of a slogan on the aircraft that brought me here.

    “Todo saldrá bien” – everything will be fine.

    NB: Melanie May travelled as a journalist on assignment, and self-isolated for 14 days on her return. Spain is not currently on Ireland’s ‘green list’, and the government continues to advise against all non-essential travel for now.

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