Immigration and mass tourism are coexisting rather awkwardly in Spain’s Canary Islands, where more than 24 000 African migrants have arrived this year.
Over the summer, a moving picture emerged of sunbathers rushing to aid exhausted Africans and offer them succour as they dragged themselves onto the beach after a perilous voyage lasting days in rickety fishing boats.
Yet given the ever-increasing flood of arrivals the Spanish government has already warned that it cannot keep on receiving them and touted repatriation as the solution.
And now, some of the tourists say they have also had enough.
“If I really see there are lots of blacks around, I’ll go to Malaga or elsewhere, to Crete,” vowed 52-year-old Belgian tourist Christiane Klimek, on his sixth visit to Tenerife.
A British visitor, Beryl Parkin, also voiced misgivings after a summer which has daily seen hundreds of immigrants reach the Spanish archipelago, leading to the near trebling of the previous annual record of 9 929.
A total of 10 500 arrived in August alone.
“I wouldn’t like it if they pestered you, that’d be awful!” Parkin said.
Compatriot Margaret Cowee, however, was more understanding and said it will take more than the current wave of arrivals to put her off.
“It doesn’t make a difference for me. I love Tenerife, I’ve been to Tenerife eight to 10 times. It’d have to be overwhelming to stop the tourists from coming.
“You can’t really blame them, I suppose there’s a lot of unemployment,” she added, trying to analyse why the migrants have risked their lives to make the trip.
“It’s bound to affect the tourists, eventually,” she mused, while contemplating a spectacular sunset.
At the Puerto de los Cristianos resort on the south side of the island European visitors, some of an annual 12-million tourist influx, have increasingly borne witness to the unfolding drama.
As yet, despite some of the misgivings voiced by a few, the tourist industry is holding up well with hotel occupation at 83% this summer, 3% more than in 2005.
“The tourists here like Tenerife,” Ricardo Fernandez, an official with the Ashotel hotel association says.
“The hotels have been full practically all summer.”
Municipal councillor for tourist affairs at Arona on the south of the island, Sebastian Marti, adds that “the winter forecast for tourist activity is even better than last year”.
After pictures went round the world of tourists helping migrants on the beaches of La Tejita and Las Galletas the authorities have been trying their best to present the best image they can of the island and boats bearing Africans approaching port have been intercepted off the coastline.
On arrival, the migrants are kept out of sight of the tourist masses at reception camps where they spend several weeks before being transferred to the mainland.
Marti says he regrets that many of the fishing boats have been towed into port in full view of the tourists as this “spoils” the usually idyllic view.
Journalists hoping to glean more information from those in the camps are kept at arm’s length.
Fernandez says he is pleased that “these guys don’t wander the streets thanks to all the controls” in place at the reception camps.
If the migrants’ nationality cannot be ascertained, they are ultimately freed onto the streets.
More arrivals are expected in the weeks ahead until the seas become choppy as summer gives way to autumn.
That could bode ill for the image and economic wellbeing of the islands, according to some.
“In a few years you’re going to see a lot of for sale signs handing from the windows of flats,” predicted Jose Manuel Acosta, a 53-year-old local man, foreseeing that a number of holiday home owners will not hesitate to sell up if the Africans keep on arriving.
‘I’d rather die than go back to sea’
Oumar Farougou Diallo, a 17-year-old Guinean, still trembles at the memory of his dozen days spent at sea crammed with dozens of others.
Oumar’s mother sold off her cows at home to pay his passage and is now counting on him to make a new life and feed the whole family back home.
Whether he succeeds or not, a repeat voyage is not on the agenda.
“I’d rather die than go back to sea,” he explains in halting French.
Oumar left Guinea-Bissau three weeks ago, fleeing a place whose inhabitants scratch a living from around one euro a day.
“Three days into the trip the rice had all gone and there was fuel in the water,” the teen, now ensconced at La Esperanza reception camp on Tenerife, explains.
A group of youngsters listen to his tale of a nightmare whose content they knew only too well from personal experience.
“We had to stay stock still and try to sleep despite the sun, the mosquitos and the salt water which burned our eyes and lips,” recounts Oumar.
Before he set off he had been optimistic, knowing several of his friends had made it.
His mother was opposed to the plan but eventually he talked her round and she sold off the cows — her only means of feeding six children.
Selling the beasts at Koubia market in eastern Guinea raised 500 000 CFA francs (about €760) which were handed over to the traffickers who found Oumar a place on the boat.
“My worst nightmare,” he stammers, looking back to the trip.
“One morning, when the motor boat was off Morocco, the captain said he was lost. We all started to cry. It was the most difficult day of my life. I felt like a condemned man,” Oumar explains.
“People were saying, ‘it’s all over, it’s all over.’ I was furious with the sea, seeing so much ocean stretching ahead of us.”
That night, a fellow passenger who Oumar says was “nervous” about the trip from the start, fell in the water and drowned.
“We asked the skipper to go and find him but he didn’t want to.”
Five skippers in all captained the vessel, taking charge in turn aided by a GPS satellite system and compass provided by the trafficker who organised the trip.
Spanish authorities finally intercepted the boat on August 18 and towed it to Las Palmas on the island of Gran Canaria.
Oumar will be cared for at the centre, where he is having Spanish and gardening lessons, until he turns 18.
He has ambitions — but they will be hard to realise here.
“I’d like to be a mechanic, an electrician, learn trades, do a good job,” says Oumar.
Having found out how hard it is to do that in Spain when you have no papers he is on the verge of tears.
“My father died during the war in Liberia three years ago. Now I have to work to send money to my mother. It’s a commitment,” says the youngster.
A few days back he managed to phone home.
“They all cried they had had no news and thought the boat had capsized.”
“My mother asked if I was in good health.
“I said, ‘yes’. But I told her to tell my big brother not to come.” – AFP