Why the Canaries?

Why decide to spend a sabbatical learning about the Canary Islands — eight islands 100km off the Moroccan coast of Africa in the Atlantic Ocean.  It is the southernmost region of the European Union (although Cape Town is sometimes jokingly referred to as the southernmost city of the EU).

The Time Ball Tower, the Dragon Tree and Dock House around 1989. V&A Waterfront, Cape Town

The Time Ball Tower, the Dragon Tree and Dock House around 1989, at the  V&A Waterfront, Cape Town

Maybe the seed was planted in 1989 when the V&A Waterfront started and our offices were at the old Dock House.  A magnificent dragon tree stood in front the the building and the story goes that it was planted in the 1880s.  A ship’s captain from the UK had collected a seed while stopping at the Canary Islands en route to Cape Town.  He gave it to the Harbour Master in Cape Town who planted it. Unfortunately, it’s no longer there.  It blew down in one of the Cape’s notorious storms a few year ago.

The Union Castle mailships, which were such a feature of Cape Town life, also plied the Southampton-Las Palmas-Cape Town route for decades, so the Islands were known to all those who travelled to or from the UK by ship.

Then I met someone from the Islands and my interest was piqued anew.  After working in tourism for a long time, I needed to explore a new success story.

And the Canaries is definitely that.  Firstly, Spain probably ‘does tourism’ better than any other country.  And the Canaries punches way above it’s size.  It claims to offer the best weather in the world, year round.  For Europe, it’s regarded as a short-haul destination.  It’s cheaper than the EU, largely because it levies no VAT (which is about 20% throughout Europe).  It’s own tax is only 7%.

Canary Islands Mythology

While the Greeks and Romans knew about what they called the Insulae Fortunatae (Fortunate Isles) long before the birth of Christ, the first recorded visits only occurred in the late 13th or early 14th century.  Some historians believe a Phoenician expedition landed on the islands in the 12th century BC, and that the Carthaginian Hanno visited the Islands in 470 BC.

Plato (428–348 BC) spoke of Atlantis, a continent sunk deep into the ocean floor after a cataclysm that left only the peaks of its highest mountains above the water.Those who believe in the existence of Atlantis have maintained that Macronesia (the Canary Islands, the Azores, Cape Verde and Madeira) constitutes the visible remains of the lost continent.

According to legend, one of the 12 labours of Hercules was to go to the end of the world and bring back golden apples guarded by the Hesperides, offspring of Hesperis and Atlas, the latter a god in Greek and Roman mythology who gave his name to the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlas mountain ranges in Morocco. Hercules supposedly had to go beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) to reach the paradisiacal home of these maidens. Hercules carried out his task and returned from what many later thought could only have been the Canary Islands.

Homer (484–425 BC), the legendary author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, identified the islands as Elysium, a place where the righteous spent their afterlife.

Learning from the Canary Islands

Of course the Canaries are not directly comparable to Cape Town, the Western Cape or South Africa.  But there are lessons to be learnt.  Both Cape Town and the Canary Islands have pinned their futures on tourism and green economies.

The Canaries have taken destination development far beyond anything found in South Africa (with the exception of the V&A Waterfront — Africa’s leading tourist destination).  The Canaries has taken brand development to new heights, being recognised as one of the world’s strongest tourism brands.

The City of Cape Town’s population is just under 4 million people; the Canary Islands has a total population of 2.1 million people.

Tenerife — the Canaries largest island with a geographic area roughly the same size as Cape Town’s — has a population of 940,000.  But it has two international airports and while Cape Town’s focal point is Table Mountain (1020 metres), Tenerife has Mount Teide (3718 metres).  Every time I drive into Cape Town, I imagine scaling Table Mountain upwards nearly fourfold.  The mind boggles.

Mount Teide’s summit at 3,718 metres is the highest point in Spain and the highest point above sea level in the Atlantic Ocean islands.  The volcano and its surroundings comprise Teide National Park, which has an area of 18,900 hectares and was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2007. Teide is Spain’s most visited natural wonder, the most visited national park in Spain and Europe and — by 2015 — the eighth most visited in the world. In 2016, it was visited by over 4 million visitors and tourists.  
By comparison, Cape Town’s Table Mountain Cableway transports ±1 million visitors a year to the top of the mountain and Cape Point Nature Reserve attracts about 250,000 visitors

If measured from the ocean floor, Mount Teide is — at 7,500 metres — the fourth-highest volcano in the world, and the earth’s third-tallest volcanic structure. Teide’s elevation makes Tenerife the tenth highest island in the world.

Sun and beach tourism in the Canaries

Out of the approximately 15.6 million visitors received by the Canary Islands in 2018, nearly 14 million came from abroad, making international visitors a key point for the tourism industry on the Spanish archipelago. Foreign tourists spent an average of 8.6 nights enjoying the islands’ great weather. Whereas this figure has been decreasing slightly over the last years, the daily expenditure of overseas visitors was on the rise and was estimated at 138 euros per tourist in 2017.

Tourism: a key sector for the Spanish economic system

Spain ranked second on the World Tourism Organization’s list of most visited countries in the world, with international visitors amounting to nearly 82 million in 2017. Travel and tourism have become one of the leading engines of growth for the Spanish economy, featuring an ongoing increase in the GDP contribution over the last years and projected to reach approximately 178 billion euros in 2018. The industry also plays a key role to boost the Spanish employment market, which has been experiencing a significant improvement since the 2007 financial crisis.

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is one of the two capital cities

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is one of the two capital cities

Tenerife was the Canarian island that received the most visitors in 2018, totaling nearly 6 million international and national tourists. Gran Canaria ranked second, clocking up approximately 4.5 million holidaymakers that same year. Travel and tourism’s contribution to the Canary Islands’ GDP increased in recent years, reaching over 15.5 billion euros (about ZAR250 billion) in 2017.

Travel and tourism GDP in the Canary Islands (Spain) 2010-2017 Published by Fernando Forte, May 20, 2019 This statistic shows the total contribution of travel and tourism to GDP in the Canary Islands (Spain) from 2010 to 2017, in million euros. The travel and tourism GDP amounted to over 15.5 billion euros in the region in 2017. Travel and tourism GDP in the Canary Islands (Spain) from 2010 to 2017 (in million euros)


By comparison, the whole of South Africa received about 4.1 million tourists (excludes cross-border travellers) and Cape Town about 1.2 million in 2018.  (South Africa’s arrivals dropped in 2019 by about 20%!)

SA arrivals, excluding cross-border travellers which are mainly shoppers. Source: SA Tourism

SA arrivals, excluding cross-border travellers which are largely shoppers for essential goods not available in neighbouring states. Source: SA Tourism

So… the Canary Islands attracts over four times more tourists as the whole of South Africa, and Tenerife five times as many tourists as Cape Town!   In the Canaries, tourism accounts for about 35% of the GDP; in SA in 2017 it was 2.9%.  When tourism’s indirect and induced benefits across a very broad value chain are factored in, the total contribution amounts to 8.9% of the GDP.  In Cape Town, it’s about 12%.


In spite of huge tourism numbers in relation to the local population, the unemployment rate in Q3 2019 was 21.2%.  For under 20 years of age, unemployment was 66.7% and for under 25 years of age, it was 40.8%.  The Canary Islands unemployment rate is about 5% higher that Spain’s national average.  One wonders why…?  What lessons can be learnt?  The regional government has tried to balance the impact of tourism on local communities.

Unemployment rate - Canaries.

Unemployment rate – Canaries. From countryeconomy.com

One of the things I want to learn about is the impact of high tourism numbers on local communities.  The is an element of dual pricing on the Canary Islands.  Air and ferry prices are subsidised for local residents by between 65 and 75% — a significant saving.

Living on a volcano

Tenerife’s reality as a volcanic Island has been made apparent throughout history due to a number of eruptions, some of which took place after the conquest and were therefore documented.

Teide last erupted in 1909 from the El Chinyero vent on the Santiago Ridge. Historical volcanic activity on the island is associated with vents on the Santiago or northwest rift in 1492, 1704, 1705, 1706, 1798 and 1909. The 1706 eruption destroyed the town and principal port of Garachico, as well as several smaller villages.

The last summit eruption from Teide occurred about 850 AD, and this eruption produced the “Lavas Negras” or “Black Lavas” that cover much of the flanks of the volcano.

Teide Observatory

Teide Observatory, a major international astronomical observatory, is located on the slopes of the mountain.

When talking about tourism numbers, I always think back to something David Daitz said, while CEO of Cape Nature.  I was surprised to see a very large and stunning poster of a wolf on his wall.  “What on earth?” I asked.  David had recently visited the wolf sanctuary in the south of France which, he pointed out, at that time received more tourists than the whole of Cape Town.  “It’s a reminder of the attraction of nature,” he said.

Has the active volcano on Tenerife deterred tourism and investment?  Most certainly not!  By comparison, South Africa’s active volcano — our own government — manages to score home goal after home goal dragging tourism down.  The year after SA’s President announces that he wants to see tourism numbers double, they drop by nearly 30%!

The bottom line for South Africa is that our tourism figures are just pathetic.

La Graciosa seen from Lanzerote

La Graciosa seen from Lanzerote