Earlier in the day before our evening at El Lagar de Julio we’d made the trip along the TF-5 to Puerto De La Cruz. Like other centres that have taken mass tourism to their bosoms there were the big hotels, apartment blocks, parking problems and Chinese restaurants. But it certainly wasn’t all awful and a lasting impression we’d gained in Tenerife of litter-free streets and a general cleanliness was here again. We walked some villa areas, the old town and harbour; took some bitter coffee and snacks in a pavement café and greatly enjoyed the pool in the Jardin Botánico. At one point I fell into conversation with a couple from northern England who were loyal visitors, having returned for their autumn break for the thirteenth year. Its popularity for them was more to do with climate than culture and it was difficult to determine what they thought exemplified the essence of the island; after all, it was warm, sunny and not too foreign. And that probably sums it up – as long as the weather is reliably good you can rub along fairly comfortably in most places. They now had a favourite hotel, a favourite steak-house and a coterie of once-a-year friends. The La Ranilla district of the old town – that’s where they were headed – clearly has a lot to offer and, if one was minded to stay, that would be the first place to look for a table for two. One had a small suspicion, however, that the views from the quiet restaurant would include bare-chested oiks moving from one themed bar to the next. It seemed a long way from the cultivated fields of the Orotava valley or the hills past El Tanque.
We were feeling that there is clearly a great deal to Tenerife and more than we could have seen or sampled in the short time we had. Its reputation – at least, the reputation that a lot of writers and reporters wanted me to have – is probably unjustified. There are some genuine and well-documented flaws but it still gets a bad press. Pleasant banana plantations, tracts of unspoilt scenery, culinary gems like Julio’s and remnants of laurel forest do provide respite from the apartment blocks in Puerto and the breathtaking, single-minded exploitation of Playa de Las Americas and Los Cristianos but in an interesting way they contain the tourism rather than allowing the tourism to dominate. A discerning visitor can get away from it but you have to wonder for how long. With tourism providing over 32% of the island’s income the politicians clearly have something of an unrequited love affair with it.
The islands, with devolved autonomous status, qualify for EU structural improvement funding so money is made available by bureaucrats for local politicians to spend on projects that are deemed [by the politicians, of course] to benefit the population or economy. Beautification, improvement of run-down urban areas, utility infrastructure and four-lane roads fall into those categories. So development is encouraged if it wears the mask of improvement, a bigger road is driven through the western end of the island, inward investment for tourist-related construction is facilitated and derelict industrial areas are turned into green spaces that are pleasant for people like me to stroll through. And, of course, every new project is justifiable – all new hotels in Tenerife, for example, must now be designated as ‘luxury’ but as someone who has been paid to stretch a developer’s budget to get an additional star pinned to a hotel’s rating, I know this to be nonsense. A 500-bed hotel, even when it is described as ‘Eco-development’, has the same environmental impact whatever its rating.
Some funding does find its way into improvement of rural areas, where there are justifiable concerns for asset [buildings and villages, that is] and soil degradation, but it’s not a lot. The putative benefit of development or new roads is that they generate employment in tourist facilities or construction when opportunities in agriculture and rural areas are diminishing. That being the case, I wonder, if a family has fished or farmed for generations what does a regular job serving club sandwiches do to halt or reverse an invidious erosion of a traditional lifestyle and values? Certainly it improves unemployment statistics and the Cabildo de Tenerife [Island Council] can demonstrate that funding is put to appropriate use. I understand that change happens and that it’s not realistic to ignore what tourist exploitation brings to the island’s economy. But have any elected politicians looked at the horizon and said, ‘Enough’?
We spent our last night in Tenerife on the Costa Adeje in order to facilitate a swim in the sea for Mission Control and a quick run to the airport. The Gran Hotel Bahia Del Duque Resort was akin to Portmeirion with waiters – all spires, columns and pastel shades – but I guess that such a resort can only exist in such a place. Security on the gate was both a real and surreal; we were expected and the guard rigorously checked our details before waving us through with a smile. So the hoi polloi were kept at bay but the fey ‘Canarian national dress’, replete with silly hat, that he and all the staff had to wear, seemed unnecessary, demeaning and, to my mind at least, insulting. Sipping a cold beer on the balcony later I gazed in silence at the developments we saw stretching away from us to the south and climbing the gentle slopes away from the sea. Whatever else one might feel about mass tourism Tenerife hadn’t shirked the job of putting its marker down. I hadn’t expected to see something so extensive or so substantive and suddenly stories of organised crime, timeshare scams, destitute emigrants and excessive behaviour fell into place; it was all simply a matter of scale.
Safe behind high walls and locked gates our accommodation was a microcosm of this tourist city; vast, not very Canarian and brimming with facilities; so many smiling, helpful staff – if looking faintly uncomfortable in their ‘working’ clothes – that one took to walking with eyes lowered so as to avoid eye-contact and the inquisitive ‘how may I help you’ response it generated. Pools, restaurants, stages, activities – I felt that by virtue of the resort being so massive and overwhelming it demanded participation. And perhaps that’s the thing – perhaps tourism is so big in Tenerife that participation, in one form or another, is the only option.
A promenade ran between the resort and the beach. When we checked-in we were warned in serious tones that it was a public area but I’m still not certain why. Was there danger or was it having to mix with people without access cards? Maybe they didn’t want us to spend anything outside the resort. No one I asked could tell me but we bravely ventured outside to find the area not only pleasant and litter-free but busy with people doing just what a promenade is for. Crowded, yes; a little noisy, possibly; fragrant from crepes and French fries, of course. But taking all things into account, it really wasn’t that bad. In a funny kind of way there was something more genuine about the crowd strolling or jogging beside the beach than there was about the guy wearing a Fedora and singing Sinatra standards with a heavy Spanish accent in the resort that evening.
The sun shined on our last morning and it was hot. Mission Control had her swim in the sea and, from a crowded beach, I watched dolphins feeding around the fish-farms despite the constant intrusion of the whale-watching boats. The swimmers and the dolphins were just getting on with it as, I guess, were the crews on the boats. When I first arrived in Tenerife I felt certain that it would be my last visit. I’ve seen enough in the island now to make me think again but, if I do return, it will be to spend time in the centre and on the northern side. Tourism will have encroached some more by then but a lot of people clearly don’t mind that. They’ll just get on with it.