Tourism and thoughtlessness threaten the nature of the Canary Islands

A recent expert workshop in the Canary Islands underlined the conflicts between mass tourism and nature conservation, but also identified ways forward.

The workshop organized by researchers of the University of Helsinki brought together 20 experts of the environmental and tourism sectors across the islands to discuss about the future of the nature conservation in the islands. Technology from social media to platform economies was considered one of the major drivers of change in the behaviour of people towards nature.  A recently published report on the workshop summarizes the findings of the discussion. 

The Canary Islands are a familiar travel destination for many Europeans. The destination is often associated with images of pleasant climate, long beaches or lively nightlife. However, the Canary Islands are also the home for many endemic species that are found nowhere else in the world. The climatic and geological diversity of the islands makes them a hotspot of biodiversity in the middle of the Atlantic. 

The MOBICON project run by the Digital Geography Lab at the University of Helsinki explores the recreational use of nature and nature tourism based on Mobile Big Data. While the interest is global, the project has some case study areas, Canary Islands being one of them. Recently, the researchers have mapped local actors' perceptions of major changes related to nature-based tourism and future  information needs in the study areas. The first workshop was organized in Helsinki in 2023 and the second took place in Las Palmas in March 2024.The workshop in the Canary Islands was organized in collaboration with researchers from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. 

"With the help of our local partners, we were able to gather 20 experts from different islands to consider the special issues related to the recreational use of nature and nature tourism, as well as information needs. The experts responded to an extensive questionnaire in advance, and the discussion deepened our understanding of the themes," says Postdoctoral Researcher Aina Brias Guinart, who leads the workshop part of the project. 

The severity of the conflict between tourism and conservation alarmed the researchers. 

"In the Canary Islands, dissatisfaction with the current model of mass tourism and its destructiveness for nature is striking" says doctoral researcher Matti Hästbacka from the MOBICON project. 

The discussion highlighted many key drivers of change that threaten biodiversity on islands. Europe's ageing population and increased teleworking have increased the number of long-term visitors to the islands. Climate change causes droughts and has led to water shortages and forest fires, especially because tourists and locals are using the natural areas in a careless way for recreation. 

“Interestingly, technology was highlighted as one of the biggest threats in the discussions between the workshop participants. For example, social media influencers can even accidentally generate movements of harmful behaviour, as happened in Maspalomas in the dune area in February: A social media influencer streamed a video about burying a box with money in the sand, and dozens of people rushed with shovels to dig up a sensitive conservation area" says Professor Tuuli Toivonen, the leader of the research project and the Digital Geography Lab.

A recently published report summarises the results of the workshop in English and Spanish. A scientific article based on the workshops is being prepared, but the researchers wanted to have the report out quickly.

“The workshop came at a time when discontent had begun to be channelled into demonstrations that have expanded to all islands during April” says Matías Manuel Gonzalez Hernandez, an Associate Professor of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and a local partner in the research. 

The report gathers the views and suggestions of professionals working with the use and conservation of nature to improve the situation. "With the publication of the report, we hope to contribute to the ongoing active societal debate on the future of the Canary Islands and the need to understand changes through knowledge," Gonzales Hernandez concludes.