Canary Islands: Construction threatens Lanzarote's biosphere status

By Anita Brooks

Unesco has threatened to strip Lanzarote of its prized biosphere status because of a rash of illegal building along the island's coast. Photo / Wikimedia Commons image by Gernot Keller
Unesco has threatened to strip Lanzarote of its prized biosphere status because of a rash of illegal building along the island's coast. Photo / Wikimedia Commons image by Gernot Keller

Many tourists travel to Lanzarote for nothing more than a sunny beach and a pitcher of sangria with a cliff-top view. But the Spanish Canary Island is also a Unesco biosphere site: an arid stretch of lava fields, salt marshes and coastal mountains where high-rises are taboo. And for decades, the island's elegant-and-ecological style of tourism defied the construction craze of its wilder island neighbours, like Gran Canaria.

At least so it seemed. Because now Unesco has threatened to strip the island of its prized biosphere status because of a rash of illegal building along the coast.

The Canary Island Supreme Court has declared that 24 hotels have been illegally built in coastal resorts such as Playa Blanca, so popular with British tourists that it's easier to order a "typical English breakfast" than the local potato dish, papas arrugas.

According to a report in the Financial Times, the court retroactively rescinded building permits, but the hotels still stand.

Eight of the hotels are landmark luxury properties like the Princesa Yaiza, which boasts a restaurant complex, spa and amusement park overlooking a crescent of golden sand.

The hotels qualified for a total of €23.6m (NZ$42.9m) in EU grants, partly thanks to the biosphere status. The EU anti-corruption office has demanded the money be returned. The Princesa Yaiza says it holds valid operating permits, and that it is the victim of a local political row.

"We are in touch with the Spanish authorities about the situation," Meriem Bouamrane of Unesco told the FT.

"If the developments are not respecting local needs and are impacting on the environment, the title can be revoked."

Since May 2009, police have arrested at least 24 politicians and businessmen, including the former president of the Lanzarote provincial government and the former mayor of Arrecife, another popular resort destination, in connection with illegal building permits.

Such police swoops have become commonplace in other once-booming Spanish coastal resorts - in Marbella, for instance, the entire city council had to be dissolved - but Lanzarote was thought to be different.

"Lanzarote had a very good application," Unesco's Ms Bouamrane said.

"Mass tourism was not something they were developing. They promoted sustainable tourism that was more respectful to the environment."

Of the 564 biosphere sites around the world, Lanzarote is the only entire island to win the prestigious classification.

The Unesco website touts the island's ecological charms, including a profusion of unpronounceable species like "arthrocnemum fruticosum", and it praises the way "priority was given to blend tourist infrastructure with the beautiful but inhospitable environment".

Thanks to a pioneering land-use plan, nearly half the island has been declared a nature reserve, the volcanic Timanfaya National Park, which is largely pristine except for a dizzying tour-bus route, camel rides and a sole restaurant where steaks are grilled over a lava-heated barbecue pit.

Unesco credits the lobbying efforts of architect Cesar Manrique, whose sustainable style of development is visible in low-key tourist attractions like the Mirador del Rio, a cafe and viewpoint imbedded in lava rock, or the Jameos del Agua, another lava-scape, which doubles a concert hall.

In fact, the Cesar Manrique Foundation, named after the late architect, blew the whistle on the illegal hotels.

The foundation's mission is to fight the onslaught of concrete towers that has littered other islands and Spanish mainland coasts.

Aquilino Miguelez, coordinator for the Lanzarote government's Biosphere Reserve Observatory, believes Lanzarote deserves its biosphere status despite the building abuses.

"It's true that corruption linked to development is a great problem on the island, but in many occasions, it has been we who have blown the whistle, and Unesco knows that," Mr Miguelez told reporters.

"What people don't seem to realise is that this reserve is a pioneer in Spain regarding the fight against illegal hotels and taking away the title would be somewhat unfair."

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