Responsible holidays in the Canary Islands

César Manrique was a hero in Lanzarote, a local visionary artist and architect, who worked closely with local authorities throughout the late 20th century to prevent his homeland from resort ruination, and whose many architectural masterpieces built into lava you can visit. Indeed, to visit Lanzarote without understanding Manrique is like doing Barcelona without Gaudí. Manrique’s statue ‘El Diablo’ is the symbol of Lanzarote’s Timanfaya National Park, overlooking all the Canary Islands as if to remind us that we need to keep the badness at bay. And these vulnerable volcanic gems do still have their demons when it comes to responsible tourism.

Wildlife & environment

Tap into the water issue

Water is a big issue on the Canary Islands, although when you look at the proliferation of well watered golf courses and resorts overflowing with swimming pools you would be forgiven for thinking that all is well. Which is an unfortunate pun, because when it comes to water, all is not well. Due to their remote nature, ecosystems and volcanic geology, the islands’ life giving resources have to be very carefully monitored. The islands source their water in two ways: in general, the western ones source theirs from ground water, and the eastern ones through desalination of sea water. So, when you see a sign asking you to be really careful about water usage, they mean it. We can enjoy these all year round gorgeous temperatures, but the impacts on water resources can be serious.

What you can do
All common sense, really. Don’t shower three times a day, don’t insist on your bed linen and towels being washed all the time, don’t leave the tap running when you brush your teeth, and seek out places to stay that are environmentally aware, with smaller pools and an ethos that encourages you to use the much bigger, natural pool nearby: the Atlantic.

Say no to dolphinariums

At Responsible Travel, we do not support keeping whales or dolphins in captivity. Tenerife has one prolific dolphinarium, with performing dolphins, sea lions, and even six orcas. The most recent orca to be brought to this water park, Loro Parque, is Morgan, in 2011, despite worldwide appeals from leading conservationists such as the WWF. These mammoth mammals, used to perform tricks for our entertainment, are social creatures that are always on the move, and so in our opinion, being cooped up in tanks, away from their mothers or social group is not only cruel, but extremely harmful. Many tourists are now becoming aware of the impacts, and indeed some holiday companies are removing the park from excursion lists. And we encourage our responsible travellers to do the same.

What you can do

Go and see whales in the wild instead. Not all whale watching voyages are created equal, however, so choose a triprun by experts like Susanne Braack, at our holiday specialists OCEANO Whale Watching. She says: “They’ve proven that pilot whales have higher cortisol levels [a hormone produced in response to stress] because there’s a lot of tourism. And the thing with the pilot whales is that they’re a resident population – they’re always there. So the operators go out and promise whale sightings, they go out three or four times a day, and it’s permanent pressure on the animals if the boats don’t follow the regulations.”

The best trips, then, follow the international whale watching guidelines, while combining scientific work with whale watching. Susanne uses 10-person Canarian fishing boats, keeps a safe distance and steady course, and logs sightings for a 20-year-old research project by a small NGO called MEER. You go whale watching; the guides log sightings and whale details from the bow; volunteers input the data back in the La Gomera office – and MEER takes care of the rest.

“It’s quite an interesting long-term project,” says Susanne, “because in 1995 this association started collecting data, which we still do on every tour, and put it in a database, and we are just now working on finding a way to get results out of this database. We’re reading data collected over 20 years. We want to bring it in relation to climate change and the water temperature – all these issues. This is the big goal because this data really is a treasure.”

Susanne says that their whale watching trips also reveal behaviour never recorded before: “We had a situation here where we found a dead calf and the mum was carrying it for six days in a row. Our biologist was on the boat and took some photos and data. Later, it was discovered that not only the mother but another individual of the dolphins carried the dead body around and this was not known before in the scientific world.”

And don’t forget about the dolphins. They often unexpectedly steal the show, says Susanne: “We had a very special encounter with a Risso’s dolphin because they are very synchronised in their behaviour, and if they’re in big groups they are so social and open to meeting humans… they really want contact. Scientists say they are one of the most intelligent dolphins; we love them very much.”

People & Culture

With the proliferation of all-inclusive resorts on the Canary Islands, most of which direct tourists away from local activities, local culture and most definitely the local economy, it is easy to forget that there is a wealth of Canarian culture on the islands, all different, and all fascinating. Seek and you will find, however. You can buy Europe’s only home grown coffee on Gran Canaria, for example, where in the Valle de Agaete coffee has been grown since the 18th century. On this island, there is a general revival of the Canarii culture as well, one that goes back to the Berber people who predate the Spanish, who conquered the islands in the 15th century. Indeed, it is thought that the Berber people came here as long ago as 1000BC. Or long Before Charters. Check out the caves on Gran Canaria, once home to many of the Berber people, many of which are now being restored. Cenobio de Valerón on Gran Canaria is a fine example of these ancient lifestyles.

On the other islands, the original Berber inhabitants are referred to as guanches, and although it is thought that most people with Berber roots are actually now a mix of Berber and Spanish, the ancient traditions live on. On La Gomera, you can still hear Silbo being used, the whistling language that enabled messages to be sent, literally, across the wind, from one valley to another. Fiestas such as Fiesta de Charco, on Gran Canaria every September, when over 15,000 people dive into La Marciega lagoon to catch as many fish as they can with their hands, are a sight to behold. Or Fiesta de la Rama in Agaete, an ancient tradition of local people heading to the Atlantic from the inland peaks or Tamadaba Natural Park in August, to beat the waters with palm branches as an act of prayer for rain. Although these days, the branches are offered to the Virgin Mary instead of the traditional rain dance. Given the lack of water issues on the islands, some might think that the original version might be more appropriate.
Matthew Hirtes, author of Going Local in Gran Canaria:
“Escape the south of Gran Canaria and head to the north coast – it suddenly feels like you have entered a book by Gabrielle Garcia Marquez. Go to the local fiestas, such as Fiesta de Charco, to see real, local traditions in action. Also walking festivals are just great here. And sometimes you can combine them with star gazing nights which are just fantastic."
Vicky Garnett, from our adventure holiday specialists Explore, says:
“Parts of the islands are built up and catered more toward mass fly and flop tourism (especially the south coasts of Tenerife and Lanzarote). We stay in smaller towns where possible and the walking trails are quiet, away from the busy areas. Most people come to sunbathe, leaving many trails free of other walkers, apart from a couple of the ones that are popular with the big walking groups.”

Responsible tourism tips

There is a lack of bike lanes on most of the islands, and with triathlon fever taking over the world, these mountainous landscapes have become very popular training grounds. So be careful to respect cyclists if you are driving, and Canary Islands – get the paint out and give the bikes a break. Electric car rental should be a no brainer on the Canary Islands, as they are small and easy to get around. But there is still a lack of quick charging systems available on most of the islands. Some holiday companies, such as our leading supplier, Lanzarote Retreats, have got around the system by creating their own charging points for electric cars that they have on site for guests’ use. And Fuerteventura has a few charging points. But things are changing, so watch this space, and always enquire about electric cars at your car rental office. It is only when tourists demand change that local authorities wake up and smell the carbon free coffee. With high temperatures and arid landscapes, and of course, wind, forest fires have been an issue on the Canary Islands. The most serious ones were on La Gomera and Tenerife in 2012, with the former losing over a tenth of its protected Garajonay Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is very important, when hiking or biking in remote parts of the islands, to take care. It is easy to see that in many spots, the flora feels like totally flammable tinder, so no matches, no barbecues and no night time fires under the stars Hiking in extreme heat can be dangerous and deaths do, tragically occur. Some holiday companies don’t offer hiking or biking trips in the height of summer anyway. But if the weather does turn very hot, always walk early in the morning and late in the afternoon in cover up and drink lots. Consider adding rehydration powders to your water for extra salts and sugars that help your body cope with the heat. Always get insurance, even if you are just going on a walking holiday. You never know what might happen.
Spokesperson from British Embasssy in Madrid, Spain:
"Make sure you have travel insurance. An emergency abroad can be extremely expensive. If you need to be returned to the UK it could cost you thousands, unless you are properly insured. It can cost, for example, £12,000 to £16,000 for an air ambulance from the Canaries. Every year British Consulates see cases of uninsured travellers facing huge bills – make sure you are not one of them."
There is plenty of solar and wind power on the Canary Islands, and yet few of them use it as a main source of energy. Seek out eco accommodations that have the sense to go renewable, in a landscape where such resources are plentiful. Drink driving is taken very seriously on the Canary Islands, and you will come across random breathalyser stops. Not only at night, but also first thing in the morning. They are also very strict with people who have been driving for less than two years. The best way to avoid fines of at least €1,000, and of course to stay safe, is simply not to drink and drive at all. Be responsible around the water in the Canary Islands. This is the Atlantic and currents are very strong. There are plenty of beaches with lifeguards, but always obey the flag signs. They are pretty easy – green means it is safe to swim, yellow means take caution, and red means that swimming is forbidden. Stay within the flag zones too, so that you can be seen by lifeguards. And learn to recognise a rip tide. If you find yourself in a rip, being taken out to sea and you can’t swim back, don’t panic. Swim to the side of it, rather than against it, heading parallel to the shore, so that you swim right out of the rip. One other good tip, if there are no local people swimming, you will generally know that it is not a safe place to swim.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Iñaki Queralt] [El Diablo - Timanfaya: Paul Stephenson] [Loro Parque: Bea & txema & alan] [Local traditions: Jose Mesa]