Subscriber OnlyTravel

‘The future of the Canary Islands is hanging by a thread’ – why Spain is falling out of love with tourists

Campaigners in Spain say it’s time for a tourism moratorium as numbers rise beyond the country’s capacity

The summer season is approaching, traditionally a time of bonanza for the Spanish tourism industry. But this year is different.

Tourist arrivals have returned to pre-pandemic levels – and in many cases surpassed them – and the impact of these visits has led the country to what appears to be a tipping point.

On Saturday, thousands of people across the Canary Islands plan to take to the streets to demand a halt to tourism-related development, in the first such mass demonstration the archipelago has seen. Last week, six protesters on the island of Tenerife began a hunger strike in protest at the local authorities’ refusal to halt the construction of two major tourism projects.

“Time is running out,” Víctor Martín, a spokesman for the hunger strikers and the activist group Canarias Se Agota (Canary Islands have had enough), told reporters earlier this week. “It is not only the health of those who are on hunger strike that is at risk – the future of the Canary Islands is hanging by a thread. Stop this race to the precipice and introduce a tourism moratorium.”


Martín and his fellow protesters are demanding that construction work on the La Tejita hotel and the Cuna del Alma macro-resort, in southern Tenerife, be stopped and that no further projects be started until a debate has been held on the islands’ tourism model.

The Canary Islands received 13.9 million foreign tourists in 2023, more than six times their population. More than five million were from the UK, with Germany and France the next biggest markets. Ireland was the fourth-biggest provider of foreign visitors to the islands, with more than 700,000 tourists.

“Since 2022, it’s been unbelievable, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Martín said. “We have exceeded our capacity and the territory cannot handle any more. It’s not the fault of the tourists. They buy their ticket to come here. It’s the fault of the local authorities who are not putting a brake on all this.”

Martín and his fellow campaigners say the negative impact of such numbers is manifold: packed towns and beaches and queues of traffic make the islands less inhabitable; the archipelago’s renowned natural spaces are suffering; and locals also suffer socio-economic repercussions.

But the discontent is not confined to the Canary Islands.

“We have seen it in Barcelona, in some parts of Andalucía, in the Balearic Islands and now we are seeing it for the first time in a really noticeable way on the Canary Islands,” said Ábel López Díaz, a professor of geography at Tenerife’s La Laguna University. “And this is all linked to the tourist model we have across virtually all of Europe.”

“There used to be lots of really cool bars, those really old quirky classic Spanish bars. But they’re gone. Everything around the centre of the city has become more generic, a bit diluted.”

—  Paul Slevin

He added: “We know that tourism is a very important economic motor and it’s going to continue being so. But we need to ensure we have a much more sustainable type of tourism in terms of management of resources, being more sustainable economically and, of course, in terms of social impact.”

Spain received a total of 85 million visitors last year, 2 per cent more than 2019. With tourism contributing 13 per cent of GDP, the industry’s strong performance has been driving the Spanish economy’s growth.

On mainland Spain, Barcelona has for years been grappling with the challenge of striking the right equilibrium between welcoming tourists and avoiding being overwhelmed. But as the numbers of arrivals there have continued to soar, the balance appears to have been lost.

One of the casualties has been smaller local businesses, which have been replaced by souvenir shops and franchise restaurants.

“There used to be lots of really cool bars, those really old quirky classic Spanish bars,” says Paul Slevin, an Irishman who owns Dinamo language academy and has lived in Barcelona for 15 years. “But they’re gone. Everything around the centre of the city has become more generic, a bit diluted.”

The cruise liners that stop off in the city’s port have become perhaps the most contentious aspect of Barcelona’s status as a tourism hub. Last year more than 3.5 million tourists visited on liners, many of them stopping off for just a few hours and seeing only the congested city centre. This year numbers are expected to increase further, with more than 900 liners due to visit.

The city’s previous mayor, the left-wing Ada Colau, took steps to stem the tide of tourism, including limiting the availability of hotel rooms in some parts of the city and shutting down 6,000 illegal holiday apartments. Colau was replaced last year by the socialist Jaume Collboni, who has announced plans to implement similar measures although he is seen as being more business friendly.

Barcelona, like the Canary Islands, has seen a backlash from locals. Anti-tourist graffiti has appeared in some areas and last summer, local people took to the streets to protest, blocking the entrance to one of the city’s biggest attractions, the Güell Park. As this year’s high season approaches, Barcelona – and most of the surrounding Catalonia region – is having to deal with an additional challenge in the shape of its worst-ever drought. A state of emergency has been declared, restricting water use, and last month activists drew attention to the extra pressure tourism exerts on this resource by briefly cutting off the water supply of Barcelona’s Tourism Consortium.

“I think if people come to Barcelona and behave themselves, [local] people don’t mind,” says Slevin. “What they don’t want is horrible, cheap tourism. They don’t want the stag and hen parties.”

This also seems to be the view of the local authorities and many in the industry.

Jordi Clos, the president of the Tourism Consortium, which is a public-private entity, has spoken of the need to transform the type of tourism Barcelona offers. He recently underlined the need “to avoid the masses who don’t bring any benefit to the city and who saturate places like the Ramblas [boulevard], and who, at the very most, end up eating a pre-cooked paella”.

The issue has been fiercely debated in the political arena. The insistence by Colau’s party on vetoing the building of a new leisure resort in Tarragona even triggered the end of the regional legislature in Catalonia.

“They say that we have an impeccable tourism model but it turns out that the people who work within that model are living in slums.”

—  Víctor Martín

But arguably the most widespread impact of Spain’s tourism boom has been on housing. Rental rates have been soaring across the country due to a shortage of available homes. Tourist apartments have pushed them up further in many areas.

That trend has been particularly pronounced on the Balearic island of Ibiza, where unemployment is low but so too are wages. Rentals have spiralled since the pandemic and some residents have seen increases of 40-50 per cent in the last year alone.

That has led to drastic situations, with some professionals commuting to the island from elsewhere in the Balearics each day while others, including some junior police officers, sleep in cars.

The local government in Ibiza, where 84 per cent of the economy is based on tourism, blames the housing crisis on holiday apartments. Although it has introduced a minimum time frame of six months for each rental, that regulation is constantly being flouted by owners who rent out their homes for just a few days at a time.

The Canary Islands have had a similar problem. With the second-lowest average salary in Spain, at around €23,000 per year, many employed locals are priced out of the housing market.

“They say that we have an impeccable tourism model but it turns out that the people who work within that model are living in slums,” says Víctor Martín, who explains that many workers are sleeping in tents, cars and even caves. “That shows that we have exceeded our limit.”

Martín and many others hope that this weekend’s protests on the Canary Islands will prompt a major change in how the archipelago – and Spain as a whole – manage an industry that keeps on growing.