Lanzarote : an island sinking under the weight of its success

The tourist guide got off the bus and greeted the group of chubby British women with “Shopping in Playa Blanca ? Shopping in Playa Blanca?” He could have said “doggy wanna bone?” and it would have been the same. I knew I had to see this.

Playa Blanca, a sprawling resort on the southern coast of Lanzarote, is everything native born artist César Manrique did not want for his waterless, volcanic island. Thanks to Manrique, the farthest east and the most arid of the Canary Islands escaped the mega hotels which defaced La Palma, Tenerife and Gran Canaria.

But greed and political corruption between 2001 and 2008 led to the illegal building of 27 hotels with a total 12, 719 new tourist rooms and flats. The courts have withdrawn the building permits retroactively but the hotels continue to operate. Five of the biggest are in Playa Blanca, converting a once quaint fishing and small cargo harbour into a Disneyland – Las Vegas – shopping mall hybrid where the only things missing are the slots.

The structures raised question as to whether Lanzarote would keep its UNESCO “Reservation of the Biosphere” status which in turn would mean losing European funding to help preserve its unique environment. Brussels is asking that 23.6 million euros of EU funding misused in the hotel constructions be returned. So far, more than thirty local businessmen and politicians have been arrested in connection with the illegal building permits, kickbacks and bribery. Prosecutors are asking that the former Mayor of Yaiza, José Francisco Reyes, be sentenced to 25 years in prison for taking money in exchange for illegal building permits in Playa Blanca. Also jailed in 2010 is the former President of Lanzarote, Dimas Martin Martin, believed to be the mastermind behind the alleged illegal building permits for kickbacks scheme.

Increased tourism and rapid growth in the number of residents is sinking the island.

If you ever wondered what Hell would look like once it had frozen over and then thawed, the landscape of Lanzarote is probably pretty close. It is arid. It is volcanic.  It is rock.  The island is 62 kilometers long and 21 wide and from its highest points you can see the whole, charred thing. The last volcanic eruption was in 1834 and in the Timanfaya Nation Park, the temperature can reach 250 degrees celcius just two meters under the surface. You will get third degree burns if you walk barefoot in the visitor center where they grill chickens over a volcanic chimney. Not the sort of place one thinks of as a viable habitat. Yet the island produces wonderful Malvasia wines in deep, black, lava soil pits which collect the mist and condensed dew of the morning. Local farmers grow potatoes, onions, grains and pumpkins.  Much of the island remains a wonder to the eyes where the whitewashed houses stand against the blackened, dried lava and stone and it is a glory to hike.

In the 1960s, painter and sculptor, César Manrique, convinced local authorities to set up strict codes which barred multi-storied buildings, clear rules for tourist complexes where no souvenir stalls would be allowed to take business away from local craftsmen and a total respect of the island’s traditional architecture of dwellings in volcanic rock. There are no advertising billboards. They even imposed a color scheme of white with blue or green trimming throughout the island.

It was an easy sell in the 1960s when the Islands population was under 40 thousand. Today there are more than 140 thousand residents, a 10% increase in the last six years, thanks mainly to aging Irish, British and Germans looking for sun and low taxes. That in itself would be tough for an island with no natural water resources and five-and-a-half inches of rain a year but tack on well over a million-and-a-half tourists annually and you have a very taxed biosphere. César Manrique’s greatest sculpture could crumble. The two wind-powered desalination plants, one just north of the capital Arrecife and the other near Yaiza in the south, can’t keep up. In 2010 it was decided to build a third. Five new wind farms are planned in all.

The east coast of Lanzarote from Puerto del Carmen to Costa Teguise is now heavily urbanized to accommodate the large number of tourists, the sort of urban sprawl Manrique fought against until his death in a car accident in 1992. As far back as 1991, the Plan of the Insular Territory considered freezing new buildings to reduce the strain on the Island’s eco-system. In 2004, a group of Spanish researchers proposed creating a tourist tax in the hopes it could keep down the number and help the island finance its survival.

But with unemployment at 35%, many in Lanzarote would like to see more tourists to create jobs, not fewer. This is in part why many turned a blind eye to the corruption of the 2000s. This is what led to the defacing of Playa Blanca.

A kilometre east of Playa Blanca’s working port is the upscale marina built to attract yachts of the rich and beautiful. They never really came but around the Marina are luxury restaurants and a shopping  mall where you can buy designer clothes, shoes and hand bags. Twice a week there is a crafts market which peddles everything from Lanzarote wines and hand painted tiles to made-in-China toys. This is the “doggy wanna bone” moment.

The seaside walkway from the marina to the port is lined with restaurants, shops and the only American fast-food restaurant I saw on the island, an insult to the wonderful seafood cuisine the locals have on offer. On this walkway is also the 385-room Hotel Princesa Yaiza where the Royal suite goes for 2000 euros a night and rooms are upwards of 150 euros. This is one of the hotels that had its building permit retroactively revoked. According to the Fondacion César Manrique, which fights to maintain the vision of the artist on the Island, the hotel is 40% over the size authorized and was judged illegal yet it continues to operate.

The hotel denies any wrong doing. “It’s not my fault if (local authorities) gave the licence,” Princessa Yaiza director, Javier Suarez , told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in 2010. He said he expected the politicians to “resolve” the case shortly. The hotel’s owners had received four million euros in EU money dedicated to help preserve the biosphere.

Despite its upscale ‘Galleria’ look, Playa Blanca is a magnet for obese Germans and Brits who think it is alright to walk around and even enter restaurants shirtless. While those restaurants which offer everything from English fish and chips or Chinese and Sushi to German Thuringer sausage do a brisk business, one of the oldest and most traditional of the restaurants remains practically empty except for the local fishermen and ship workers. La Cofradia de Pescadores is a square, faceless building which sits near the docks on the other side of a parking lot, far from the tourist strip. Its seafood dishes are to die for.  It is practically all that remains of the real Playa Blanca.