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Lanzarote – paradise for tourists or inept politicians?

The Canary Islands were shaken this weekend by a wave of protests about mass tourism, which reverberated as far as London and New York. The global media picked up the story, and also underlined the fact that locals were more concerned about poor governance than about the tourists themselves.

Local media coverage forwarded by my friend Eric Poettschacher showed crowds marching in the centre of  Arrecife demanding an end to mass tourism. They invoked the spirit of César Manrique, a local artist, sculptor and nature activist who campaigned for sustainable development in Lanzarote. Manrique argued that the development of mass tourism and the construction of high-rise hotels should stop in a 1985 manifesto, but his warnings have since been erased by unbridled development.   In 2023, more than 16 million tourists came to the Canaries, vastly outnumbering the local population of 2.2 million.

The fragile beauty of Lanzarote that Marique wanted to conserve (Unsplash/Zinah Insignia)

The protests in Lanzarote were very firmly aimed at the politicians, who have consistently failed to manage tourism effectively. Previous attempts to follow Manrique’s formula of developing high-quality, sustainable tourism were largely ignored, particularly where these were linked to the development of cultural tourism. The focus of the protests was clearly on the model of mass tourism development, which is not only threatening the island’s fragile environment, but which has also produced a vastly unequal distribution of wealth. In spite of the millions of tourists who arrive,    18% of the population is living in the shadow  of poverty.

This kind of neo-colonialist tourism development underlines the importance of finding new models of tourism development, particularly in the remoter areas of Europe. A very appropriate time to be launching CROCUS, the acronym for an EU project on “Cultural and Creative Tourism in Rural and Remote Areas: Sustainable Business Models, Cooperation, and Policies”. Over the next three years CROCUS will be seeking to identify innovative ways for tourism to develop in rural and peripheral areas, utilizing much of the expertise that has been developed by the ATLAS Cultural Tourism Research Group over the past 30 years. 

As the Lanzarote example has shown, one of the biggest challenges for effective tourism development in rural and remote areas is good governance. One of the options the CROCUS project will examine is the use of more inclusive placemaking approaches that bring together a wide range of stakeholders to promote grass-roots development. Linking this to what King et al (2023) have termed ‘cultural governance’ could be an effective means of supporting cultural and creative tourism development.

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