Unveiling the Dual Face of Canary Islands Tourism

The Canaries have two faces. On the one hand,mass tourism, and on the other, an incredible part of Europe is yet to be discovered.

For a long time, if there was one destination I refused to go to, it was the Canaries. I had a disastrous image of mass tourism with club hotels as far as the eye could see. I knew by reputation that the archipelago was swarming with Brits, Germans, and Nordics looking for cheap sun and all-inclusive packages. I didn’t want to find myself on vacation with a bunch of drunken, wild English youngsters. The Canaries were a no!

However curiosity got the better of me. After reading a few blogs, I thought there might be another face of the Canaries to discover. As a transport and tourism professional, I also wanted to understand better what makes the Canaries attractive.


In this article, I present my personal analysis of Canarian tourism based on my travels and internet research:

1. The first face of the Canaries: mass tourism hell!

  • Europe’s top tourist destination
  • Tourists, mainly North Europeans, come for the sun
  • Tourism well accepted by the local population
  • An underestimated environmental impact
  • A nuanced assessment

2. The second face of the Canaries: a paradise for independent travellers

3. Five reasons why the Canaries are a paradise for independent travellers

  • Reason 1: Spectacular landscapes untouched by mass tourism
  • Reason 2: A plunge into the history of our planet with volcanoes
  • Reason 3: Authentic city, village and artistic life
  • Reason 4: A feeling of great freedom and tolerance
  • Reason 5: The beach and sport as the ultimate arguments

4. My example of a trip to see the Canaries differently

All texts in color coral indicate an internal or external link.

The Canary Islands are an archipelago of eight islands, along with Cape Verde, the Azores, and Madeira, which form part of Macaronesia. The Canaries are close to the Moroccan coast.

The population is 2.2 million, the vast majority of whom live in Tenerife and Gran Canaria. The Canary Islands are an autonomous region of Spain.

Its climate and relative proximity to continental Europe have made it a major tourist destination.

Map Canary Islands

The first face of the Canaries: mass tourism hell!

Mass tourism does exist in the Canaries, and it’s massive, to say the least! It’s a real industry, and the Canaries manage it as such.

Europe’s top tourist destination

Before the Covid crisis, some 13 to 14 million tourists visited the Canaries every year. This is a considerable figure. Another dizzying figure: 96.1 million tourist overnight stays in 2019. This makes the Canaries Europe’s number one travel destination.

Hierarchy Tourist receptive Europe

Source: Eurostat

This is all the more remarkable given that the Canaries’ geographical location means that air and sea are the only means of access.

Tourists, mainly North Europeans, come for the sun

Behind the astronomical figures, the profile of the tourist who comes to the Canaries is paradoxically reassuring.

In 2019, the year before the Covid crisis, the average tourist came for around nine days. This is repeat tourism, as over 72% have been here before. Their overall satisfaction is 8.7/10, which is quite high.

The majority of tourists come from Northern Europe.

  • UK: 32.7
  • Germany: 18.09
  • Spain: 13.3
  • Nordic: 9.7

French visitors accounted for just 3.9% of admissions. But since the Covid crisis, it’s a destination that’s been on the rise among my compatriots.

Half the tourists are couples, and the average age is 47. 55% of them have a household income of less than EUR 50,000 a year. We’re a far cry from the hordes of drunken British youth I imagined before coming!

Unsurprisingly, the beach, the promenade, and the beach are the most popular activities. The climate, sense of security, and tranquility are the reasons given for choosing the Canaries. At 55%, tourists come primarily to relax.

I got all this data from the tourist office, Promotur, which provides an incredible amount of statistical information to draw up a precise profile of visitors and their motivations for visiting the Canaries. A powerful marketing tool for tourism professionals!

Tourism well accepted by the local population

With a population of just 2.2 million, you can guess that mass tourism would not go down well with the local population.

My perception is that the opposite is true, and the majority of Canaries inhabitants want only one thing: to keep the tourists coming back in droves. The “tourists go home” feeling that is widespread in Venice, Barcelona, and Amsterdam seems to be less prevalent in the Canaries. It’s true that 38% of the population works in tourism and is directly dependent on this activity.

When I went to the Canaries, I understood why. Mass tourism is geographically very localized. According to a study by the University of La Laguna, 94% of tourist accommodation is concentrated in 1.7% of the territory. These are all the brown points on the map below. As a result, the Canaries don’t feel dispossessed of their islands.

Concentration of tourist accommodation Canaries


Without tourism, which accounts for a third of GDP, the country would be very poor and depopulated.

Another explanation is that seasonality is much less marked than in the Mediterranean basin. The weather is fine all year round in the Canaries, with little difference in temperature between winter and summer. Tourist flows are therefore well smoothed out.

Seasonal tourism in Europe

As almost all tourists come by plane and most stay in their resorts, there’s none of the traffic congestion you find on the French Côte d’Azur in summer, for example. Only 12% of tourists rent a car.

An underestimated environmental impact

That said, the tourist areas of the Canaries are impressive. It often seems as if buildings are literally eating up the mountains. The greed of property developers and the lack of regulation by politicians in the Canary Islands leave one wondering.

Out of curiosity, I went to see Los Cristianos in Tenerife or Puertorico in Gran Canaria. Their excess is surprising, sometimes shocking, but also fascinating.

Los Cristianos

The environmental impact of tourism does not seem to have been seriously studied. In particular, water resources are inadequate for the volume of tourists. One figure stands out: a tourist consumes 600 liters of water a day, while a local consumes just 150 liters. Aren’t huge swimming pools by the sea heresy? The Canaries are increasingly using desalinated water, which requires considerable energy production.

Water sources in the Canaries

Air traffic between Northern Europe and the Canary Islands is a major source of CO2 emissions that is not directly taken into account. The average flight time is 3 hours to Madrid and 6 hours to Stockholm. For Scandinavia, these are almost long-haul flights.

A nuanced assessment

The Covid crisis, with its dizzying drop in tourist traffic from 13.1 million in 2019 to 3.8 million in 2020, has been an electroshock whose long-term consequences the region has yet to fully grasp.

From an environmental point of view, mass tourism is a very damaging industry, as we were able to see when we visited the area.

To read the Canary Islands government’s marketing plan, you’d think the archipelago would want to abandon its growth-at-all-costs objectives and focus on more qualitative ambitions:

  • Improve the resilience of their model
  • Reduce carbon emissions and aim for carbon neutrality from tourism activities
  • Generate more added value for the Canary Islands economy

However, no practical measures or actions are proposed in the plan, which remains at the level of generalities. For truly sustainable tourism, however, the Canary Islands will inevitably have to define a much more precise and concrete plan. My internet research suggests that the Canaries are still engaged in a headlong rush. I hope I’m wrong. If so, bring me different insights in the comments!

A reading of the report written by Yeray Hernandez for the European Commission “Scenarios for resilience and climate adaptation strategies in Tenerife” confirms this: if nothing changes, the Canaries will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their current model.

It is therefore rather worrying to see that tourism continues to grow, but that on the contrary the agricultural sector is shrinking. Between 2000 and 2012, land devoted to agriculture in Tenerife fell by 20% and exports by 23%. Tourism remains the Canary Islands’ leading sector.

On the positive side, if we look at mass tourism from a societal point of view, I’d say it’s been a great success in the Canaries. It has been able to meet a broad demand from tourists who are not necessarily wealthy. The services offered are good value for money, and the satisfaction rate is high. It’s a success story that the French West Indies could learn from.

The second face of the Canaries: a paradise for independent travelers

Paradoxically, when I went to the Canaries, I realized that mass tourism offers significant advantages for simplifying the independent traveler’s journey:

  • There are plenty of flights from all over Europe, and prices are low. Especially if you plan ahead and avoid the Spanish school holidays.
  • It’s easy to rent a car at a very reasonable cost.
  • The road network is of outstanding quality.
  • The Canaries offer a wide range of accommodation, from fincas lost in the mountains to 5-star resorts.
  • The range of restaurants is also extensive. Some superb tables are even worth a detour! As all Europeans meet in the Canaries, opening hours are extended to meet everyone’s expectations.

We owe all this infrastructure to the demand of the millions of tourists who have created this tourism offer. With a slightly offbeat approach to travel, the Canaries are an utterly fascinating tourist destination with the advantage of excellent facilities and good value for money.

After several visits to the Canaries, I’ve listed five reasons why I love this archipelago and want to return as an independent traveler.

Five reasons why the Canaries are a paradise for independent travellers

Reason 1: Spectacular landscapes untouched by mass tourism

The most spectacular and scenically varied islands I’ve visited are Gran Canaria and Tenerife. Mass tourism is geographically very localized and you can quickly escape it.

Gran Canaria is a concentration of the different landscapes of the eight Canary Islands. With its rugged terrain, it offers visitors a wide variety of sites, from semi-desert to tropical opulence. The north coast may be raining, while the south is dominated by sunshine. Its compact shape and winding roads make it easy to get lost and feel a sense of adventure.

Tenerife is the perfect island for a road trip. Crossing the island from north to south took us through extraordinary mountain landscapes, immense forests of Canarian pines, and volcanic expanses. We went from mirador to mirador, with spectacular views of the Atlantic.

Then there’s Lanzarote and La Palma, two islands with nothing in common. The first is dry and volcanic. The second is green and tropical. Smaller than Tenerife and Gran Canaria, they have a more coherent appearance. They’re definitely worth a visit. These are the most aesthetically homogeneous islands, and you won’t find big cities like Las Palmas or Santa Cruz with their inevitable suburbs studded with shopping malls and warehouses.

Then there are the islands of La Gomera and El Hierro, which I haven’t visited yet. The first is very close to Tenerife and is renowned for its hiking. The second is a UNESCO Geopark. Their landscapes are just as famous, and I can’t wait to discover them for myself.

Finally, Fuerteventura. It boasts some of the best beaches in the Canaries, and indeed in Europe. The most spectacular is Cofete, at the southern tip of the island, which is still very wild.

In all cases, the road network is excellent and, apart from a few towns, traffic is fairly light.

Walk to playa del Tamidite


Reason 2: A plunge into the history of our planet with volcanoes

I won’t tell you that volcanism is still very active in the Canaries. The latest eruption on the island of La Palma in 2021 received extensive media coverage.

A trip to the Canary Islands was an opportunity for me to  learn more about volcanism and see by myself how it impacts our planet.

A good introduction to volcanism that I’ve made is the guided discovery on foot in Lanzarote’s Timanfaya National Park.

The lord of the Canary Islands volcanoes is, of course, Tenerife’s Pico del Teide. It peaks at 3715 meters and is sometimes covered in snow. The plain at its foot is an extraordinary volcanic landscape to behold.


Reason 3: Authentic city, village and artistic life

While their suburbs are not very attractive, as in our big cities, the Canaries’ two largest, Las Palmas and Santa Cruz, are not lacking in interest.

This starts with their merchant ports, which give them a Corto Maltese adventure atmosphere. There’s the typical Spanish city bustle, with a lively nightlife that contrasts with lethargic afternoons and siesta times.

Las Palmas boasts a beautiful historic city center, with the Vegueta and Triana districts a must-see. It also offers a long urban beach that rivals those of Rio de Janeiro : Playa de las Canteras. It was one of the first Canary Islands tourist destinations in the 1960s.

Santa Cruz is a beautiful modern city. Not far from here is the colonial town of San Cristóbal de la Laguna, a must-see in Tenerife.

Lanzarote has something unique in the world. The island was entirely conceived and shaped by one artist: César Manrique, who lived there from 1919 to 1992. He successfully fought to prevent his island from being disfigured by property developers. Hotels can be no more than two stories high, and the villages are remarkably homogeneous, with their emblematic architecture of whitewashed walls and blue windows and doors. He has created artistic projects, known as “intervenciones”, which can be visited, such as the Cactus garden or his house built around lava tunnels.

And, just about everywhere on the islands, we discovered typical villages often clinging to the mountains. Examples include but are not limited to, Teror on Gran Canaria, Masca on Tenerife in a setting worthy of the Andes mountains, and Haría on Lanzarote. Less accessible, they remain more authentic than some Provencal villages.


Reason 4: A feeling of great freedom and tolerance

The paradox of Spain is that it is a country steeped in Catholicism and tradition, yet at the same time one of the most progressive in terms of morality.

This freedom of morals can be seen in Maspalomas, which has become a mecca for gay parties. The whole of Europe gathers here, notably for the Gay Pride in May. The epicenter of gay life is at Yumbo: a shopping mall of unremarkable architecture, but with a lively, popular atmosphere!

The Canaries also rhyme with naturism. Nudity is accepted on many of the archipelago’s beaches as soon as you leave the resorts and towns. The freedom to choose whether to bathe nude or in a swimsuit is much appreciated. It’s a naturism that’s not militant but plays on a form of simplicity. Everyone does what they want without judgment.

Last but not least, the ease with which you can travel to the Canaries gives you that feeling of freedom. It’s all so simple. You don’t feel oppressed by crowds or traffic jams.


Reason 5: The beach and sport as the ultimate arguments

The Canaries enjoy one of the world’s best climates for vacations. The difference between winter (18° to 20° by the sea) and summer (24° to 26°) is very slight. This makes for an active vacation. The generous sunshine also makes for more relaxing stays at the beach or in one of the many resorts.

The climate is ideal for sports. The mountains and magnificent parks are perfect for hiking. The sea, with its cool average temperature of 18° to 22°, is ideal for swimming, but a little less so for lounging as in the tropics. The steady, sometimes strong winds offer excellent conditions for kitesurfing and sailing.

Some of the smaller or older seaside towns are far from unpleasant and are more reasonably sized than their Mediterranean counterparts. These include Maspalomas on Gran Canaria, Los Gigantes on Tenerife, and Playa Blanca on Lanzarote.

Playa Sotavento

My discovery of the Canaries to inspire you!

The Canaries lend themselves to a ” land-trip” as I like them: taking the time to explore the archipelago at low speed.

In three or four weeks, it’s possible to get a good feel for the archipelago in all its diversity. I tell you all about it in two articles based on my travels:


Map "land trip" Canaries



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