La Graciosa is at risk of dying of success. The smallest island in the Canary Islands has joined the model of the rest of the Archipelago and is ready to receive all those visitors who want to know its sandy streets and unspoiled beaches. On the seafront, hundreds of tourists get on and off the boat that connects the island with Lanzarote, try Canarian food in restaurants and enjoy the most mythical coves in the area. But in the corners where the local population still dominates, there are debates about whether there is an island for so many people.
“It is the goose that lays the golden eggs and they are going to squeeze it until it bursts,” they say. They also wonder when the mountains of waste and plastics that crown some corners will disappear and if one day the works of the treatment plant and that of the socio-cultural center will conclude, paralyzed for years. However, few want to speak to journalists. ” There are two surnames that run the island. In such a small place there are many crossed interests and they can annoy you, ” they say.
The irruption of tourism in the sixties destroyed the small community that made up the town of La Graciosa. In three decades, the model of homogeneous society that characterized the island gave way to social stratification. The top was occupied by large fishing companies and investors in the tourism sector. Below were entrepreneurs with businesses in the hotel and trade industry and, after them, working families, according to the article Tourism, political decisions and social change in a fishing village of the anthropologist Gloria Cabrera. According to some visitors, this division continues even today.
On this last scale is María, who does not stop cleaning the tables of her little bar El Mesón de la Tierra and apologizing to the visitors who are waiting impatiently to sit down to eat: “This is a burden.” According to the hotelier, it had been years since they had such an intense summer in terms of visitors.
On the other side of the pyramid is Federico Romero, one of the businessmen who lives off tourism. His family, from La Graciosa “for a lifetime”, founded Lines Romero, the boat company that connects the north of Lanzarote with this island and which he now runs together with his three brothers. In this business, the Romeros compete with another entity: Biosfera Express. Sitting on the deck of one of his sailboats, Romero laments the 80% losses he suffered during the 2020 lockdown decreed to stop COVID-19. “What you lose you will never get back.” But this summer, its ferries, with capacities of between 300 and 400 passengers, make up to 20 trips a day.
According to the data provided by the Cabildo de Lanzarote to this writing, in 2020 the port of Caleta de Sebo moved 330,886 passengers. Of them, 313,495 via regular maritime line. In 2019, before the pandemic, the data amounted to 502,490 passengers, 446,454 via maritime line. Asked about the ability of La Graciosa to assume this figure, the businessman acknowledges that in August “all tourist destinations” have deficiencies in infrastructure and compares the island with Benidorm: “There will also be queues to eat in a restaurant,” he asserts.
For Romero, it would be “ideal” for the island to receive the same influx of visitors every month of the year as in August. Meanwhile, he supervises how his employees prepare food and drinks and prepare the sailboat for the arrival of tourists. As every day, more than a hundred people will skirt the island in a boat and go down to the French Beach by kayak. An experience that costs the visitor 59 euros, but that according to some visitors ends up “privatizing the cove”.
Cars to transport tourists in a Biosphere Reserve
Another way to get around La Graciosa is by jeep. 25 vehicles function as taxis that connect the port of Caleta de Sebo with the different coves of the island for a price of ten euros per person round trip. The cost is set by the Island Council and the City Council, according to one of these drivers. However, he assures that in many cases some taxi drivers raise the price. In others, residents without a license to transport passengers use their private cars to get extra money. “In a good month, you can earn more than 1,600 euros. In others, hopefully you reach 500”.
In order to take tourists, according to this same driver, they must register as self-employed and obtain authorization from the Teguise City Council, whose municipal area includes the largest and all the islands of the Chinijo Archipelago, as Villa de Teguise was the old capital. from Lanzarote. He prefers not to give his name, since the group has been involved in different controversies in recent weeks. Among them, the protest for the cut in the access to Las Conchas Beach, one of the most demanded by tourists. “I do not understand why they do work in the middle of August,” says one of the taxi drivers.
They also have an open conflict with Puertos Canarios, which ordered the jeep to stop using their land as a stop “for safety”, given the avalanche of visitors scheduled for this month. According to some visitors, this way of transporting tourists is neither of quality nor respectful of the environment. “They could put a bus line”, they propose.
Raise the resort model, “an outrage”
Matías González, professor at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, defends that the Canary Islands have failed in all dimensions of sustainable tourism. In the economic sphere, the Islands “have not been able to give value to their natural resources.” On the social front, tourism has not distributed its benefits equitably and has concentrated the income from this sector on promoters. Meanwhile, the jobs are low-paying and with a very high level of precariousness. In the environmental dimension, “the development of tourism has occurred with its back” to the environment. “Its poor planning engulfs the natural resources that make up its main attraction. It is a terrible paradox,” says the teacher. Regarding governance, for González “the management of tourism has come about due to the demands of interest groups.” “They have played obscurantism, covert operations that benefit one and the other.”
To propose this “failed” resort model in La Graciosa, based on creating hotels to fill them with people, would be “outrageous,” according to González. For him, this small island is in time to become a small laboratory of strategies for sustainable tourism. “On this island it would hardly be justifiable that single-use plastics could enter, or materials that are not guaranteed to recover.” Even so, in the two supermarkets there are still plastic bags on offer.
Doris is an artisan and has just opened her ecothop in the center of the main port of grace. Installing a trade that respects the environment in the middle of the island’s tourist boom is for her “a way of connecting and respecting nature”. “We cannot refuse tourism, but we must all do our part to make it good for everyone.”
Where does the wastewater go?
According to Matías González, in La Graciosa “an additional increase in visitors should not be favored before having solutions for the management of solid waste and wastewater.” On the streets of the island you can still see the works of the promised treatment plant, which would respond to a historic demand from the neighbors. In 2017, the Government of the Canary Islands assured that the project was in its last phase and that the infrastructure would be completed before the end of the first half of that year. Residents and regular visitors say it has not worked for a long time, despite the fact that “they lifted the entire island and installed large pipes.”
On the contrary, the Cabildo de Lanzarote ensures that the mixed Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) is active. “Most of the people have a septic tank and part of that wastewater ends up in the sea,” says the ULPGC professor. At the moment, “the amount of water that reaches the ocean” is not so great “as to produce important diseases”, since the population that resides all year in the territory does not exceed 700 people.
Mountains of waste
Waste management is also a problem that has gone unnoticed. A Canarian family that visits La Graciosa every year invites you to observe the views it has from the balcony of their apartment. On the one hand, a lot littered with construction debris. In front, another fenced field full of mattresses, bathtubs, plastic and even the remains of a car. “It doesn’t cost anything to get this out of here, a protected place shouldn’t be like this,” laments one of the men who, again, refuses to give his name. “A lot of people know me here.”
Canary Islands Now He has tried on several occasions to speak with Alicia Páez (CC), the councilor delegate of the City Council of Teguise in La Graciosa, but it has not been possible. For its part, the Cabildo de Lanzarote has responded that in 2015 the island corporation awarded the management of the La Graciosa Waste Transfer Plant to the same company that manages the Zonzamas Environmental Complex, in Lanzarote. This company is in charge of treating the waste before it is transferred to the neighboring island.
“The island is a paradise, of course it is. But every year more people come and the infrastructures are not ready, ”says a Canarian visitor. At 19:30 the last boat leaves for Lanzarote. Tourists leave enraptured and give a few minutes of calm and silence to La Graciosa, which rests and prepares to serve hundreds more people again the next day.