A different look at the problems with tourism on Tenerife

Having lived there for fourteen years, I’ve been following reports about problems with tourism on Tenerife. The Spanish news items I read tend to accurately reflect what recent protests are about, trying to bring about change in a tourism model that is unsustainable.

This is nothing new. The motto the group responsible for organising protests use – Canarias tiene un límite (the Canary Islands have a limit) – was coined twenty years ago. I wrote about protests regarding a new hotel at Playa de la Tejita well over a decade ago. One of the more specific targets of recent protests is still to try to prevent the building of this hotel. The battle cry remains the same as it did back then – ‘Salvar la Tejita.’

Problems with tourism on Tenerife. Building work at Playa de la Tejita, Tenerife
Controversial construction work at Playa de la Tejita.

The UK media, on the other hand, have generally pushed a fabricated, anti-British tourist angle. Much of what is reported in the UK doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny.

What both protesters and the UK media are equally guilty of is the image of Tenerife they present to the world is misleadingly one-dimensional – a destination defined purely by mass tourism. This diminishes the island, makes it seem as though there is less to it than there really is. It certainly doesn’t reflect the Tenerife we lived in and loved.

Many of the issues relating to unsustainable growth in the tourism sector have been around for a long time. Years ago, we mused about the day when purpose-built resorts would spread along the coast from Los Cristianos to Los Gigantes. I’m with the protesters who are trying to put the brakes on this build, build, build, money, money, money approach.

Del Duque, Tenerife
The western end of Costa Adeje didn’t look like this in 2003.

Anyone who walks from Los Cristianos to the western end of Costa Adeje can see it’s a hotchpotch of a place, with no structured planning regarding development or infrastructure. Bits have just been added on to meet demand. Just before we moved to Tenerife in 2003, we stood at what was then the western end of Tenerife while a friend who lived there pointed out where the ‘posh’ new hotels were going to be built. That area is now a huge sprawl.

But to understand why Tenerife should be viewed differently from other destinations experiencing problems with mass tourism, it helps to go back in time.

Life in the south of Tenerife before tourism

A guidebook I have which was published in 1903 doesn’t have any entries for the south of Tenerife. Its descriptions stop at Güímar, where the road ended until it was extended further south during the first half of the twentieth century. People did live in more southerly parts. A few fishermen lived in coastal areas, some occupying caves (cave dwelling on Tenerife isn’t new either). Most lived in the hills, as was the norm in the Canaries due the threat of attack from the sea. The dry, sunny climate that attracts tourists today meant it wasn’t prime agricultural land. Water was scarce and had to be channelled in from Güímar.

Playa de la Tejita, Tenerife
Playa de la Tejita, an area where camels were once used as livestock.

Prior to tourism, people in the south of Tenerife were generally poor and life was hard, as pointed out by the mayor of Adeje last year. There are no grand buildings on the scale of those found in La Laguna, La Orotava, and Garachico. Tourism was the south of Tenerife’s blessing, even if it is often portrayed as its curse.

By the late 1960s, there were some tourist developments in the south. A German guidebook I have from 1969 shows a handful of hotels in Los Cristianos.

Displacement of locals

Some issues raised by the protesters are no different from those experienced by people who live in any area that is a popular holiday spot. The explosion in the holiday rental market has decimated communities across Europe. In 2023, we put together a walking holiday in South Devon, staying in Salcombe where around sixty percent of properties are second homes, something which has sucked the life out of the town outside holiday seasons. Our neighbours in Palmela in Portugal worked in Lisbon but couldn’t afford to stay in the city. It’s a widespread issue.

Hippy beach, Tenerife
Not far from the plush hotels is an area where people have lived ‘off grid’ for many years.

But Tenerife is different.

In a UK tabloid, an activist was quoted as saying she felt like a foreigner in her hometown of El Médano, so much so she had to leave. In 1865, there were just seven buildings in El Médano, none permanently occupied. It was only after Tenerife South Airport opened that the area experienced small-scale development. It was a strange example to use. El Médano is nothing like the purpose-built resorts further south. It is quite unique in that it feels Canarian, yet has a bohemian vibe thanks to it being internationally renowned for wind sports.

The same activist claimed, ironically, native islanders were in danger of becoming extinct. That already happened a long time ago, following the conquest of the Canary Islands. The native islanders were the Guanche … and even they were incomers.

In 1842, Arona, where Los Cristianos and Playa de las Américas is located, had 1516 residents. By 2023, that number had swelled to 85,249. By comparison, La Orotava in the north had 8315 residents in 1842 and 42,454 in 2023. A municipality where not many people lived pre-tourism now has the third highest number of residents on Tenerife, lagging only behind those with the cities of La Laguna and Santa Cruz.

In some municipalities in the south of Tenerife, eighty percent of the people who live there are incomers. What’s important to understand is, these ‘incomers’ haven’t displaced locals on a significant scale, because there weren’t many locals in the first place. Most of what exists only does so because of the tourist industry. This differentiates purpose-built tourist resorts from historical cities such as Barcelona, Venice, and Dubrovnik.

Guanche, Candelaria, Tenerife
The Guanche, the race of people who lived on the island before it was colonised by Spanish conquistadors.

Change the travel patterns of tourists

There have also been reports of officials on Tenerife wanting to attract a more affluent, discerning type of tourist rather than budget holidaymakers seeking cheap holidays in the sun. Apart from the fact that what officials said and what UK tabloids reported they said don’t match up, it’s a non-starter. We had a conversation with someone in the travel industry last year who talked about changing the mindset of people who go on fly and flop holidays so they’d book ones which offered a more immersive experience. Ain’t going to happen. Different people like different types of holidays. Simple as that.

And it certainly isn’t going to happen when the resorts they fly to are purpose-built for a fun in the sun experience, and where the only local culture or traditions to be found are manufactured ones. Nobody seeking an immersive travel experience would choose a purpose-built resort in which to stay. However, stray outside the resorts and the real Tenerife is easy to find, as many visitors already know. The immersive market already exists. Around twenty percent of people who visit Tenerife want to get to know the island – its culture, gastronomy, countryside etc.

Teno, Tenerife
These are the sort of scenes I see when I think of Tenerife.

What all of this means for anyone thinking about travelling to Tenerife is not a lot for the time being. The target of protests is the island’s government, not tourists. As mentioned previously, what locals are protesting about is part of a long-running saga. What is new though is elements of the UK media deciding to sensationalise islanders’ concerns and tweak them to fit their own agenda.


About Jack 799 Articles
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a Slow Travel consultant and a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Facebook for more travel photos and snippets.

1 Comment

  1. Well said, Jack, people in the UK are already taking in the press articles to the extent that they have a picture in their heads of every piece of coastline in Tenerife being crammed with sunbeds. When we try to explain the reality it’s easy to tell it just doesn’t sink in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.