Spain empties, the islands fill up

“The Canary Islands have an overpopulation problem,” warned the former nationalist president of the Government of the Canary Islands, Paulino Rivero, in a conference on the future of the Islands after the pandemic, which was organized these days by the regional Parliament, which was attended by another ex-president, the socialist Jerónimo Saavedra. “We do not have sufficient capacity to generate economic activity that results in the well-being of all of us who live in the archipelago, a very fragile territory that cannot, under any circumstances, continue to increase its population by 20,000 people a year,” said the man from Tenerife, who called the growth “outrageous.”

The nationalist politician’s wake-up call is by no means trivial. An X-ray of the Canary Islands partly explains the great paradox that the islands endured in times of economic boom: in full succession of tourist records for seven years (2011-2018), receiving from 12 to 16 million visitors a year, it continued to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Just before the pandemic, nearly 20% of the islands’ workforce was unemployed.

The problem is structural and has a lot to do with the constant flow of workers who regularly come to the Islands to earn a living in the service sector. Especially from the Peninsula, but also from Europe. This has been a historical constant since the Canary Islands became a mass tourist destination in the 70s, attracting foreign workers to cover the growing workforce that both the services and construction sectors have demanded. This high demand has attracted such a volume of peninsular or foreign workers that, in the two decades that go from the mid-90s to 2015, the active population of the Canary Islands grew by almost half a million people. Only in crisis years have there been specific setbacks: 34,000 left during the 2008-2014 crisis and about 6,000 have done so during the pandemic year. Vegetative growth does follow the national pattern: it is negative.

A “barbaric” growth, in just 20 years, which has made the Archipelago one of the regions with the highest demographic increase in Europe. And in the first of the country. Thus, while the phenomenon of emptied Spain has emerged with force in the social and political debate, the overpopulated Canary Islands remains in oblivion, with the problems of attention and tension that this great labor flow creates.

This regular immigrant population has also implied an overload on public services (especially health), without being accompanied by an increase in resources due to delays in updating the censuses and in the reform of the financing system itself.

The problem of the strong demographic pressure on the Islands has, without a doubt, a difficult solution. In the parliamentary debate, both former president pointed out two possible ways: the Rivero solution goes through legally complex formulas such as encouraging the hiring of native people on the part of the companies, as he defended during his time at the head of the regional Executive despite supposing a limit to the free movement of people that the European Union requires. The Saavedra solution It happens, however, to promote “education and training.” Ultimately, to create a more qualified society to fill the jobs that end up occupying more competitive workers or with greater availability to move. Although the socialist leader also defended that “immigration is going to be an economic necessity so that the Canaries can maintain their standard of living.”

The President of Parliament, Gustavo Matos, concluded by noting that “we must make the decision of how many we want to be in the Canary Islands”, and agreed with Rivero that with “the current economic model we are not capable of unlimited growth in terms of population.” And that’s actually the quid of the question, that the Canary Islands need to change its current economic model, which presents serious imbalances, to solve its problem of overpopulation.

A crisis structure

Unemployment map. In times of economic normality, the largest pockets of unemployment are concentrated in neighborhoods of the most populated cities in the Canary Islands; and the least, in the main tourist areas. The largest number of foreign residents is also concentrated in them, which highlights the low mobility of the Canarian worker to move to the areas with the highest demand.

Foreign labor. The main foreign workers who have arrived in the Canary Islands in these years have been Italians (there are already more than 50,000 in the Canary Islands), followed by the British (almost 29,000). And just in the last year, the largest regular migration has come from Venezuela (about 20,000). Morocco is the fourth largest emitter of citizens to the Islands (more than 18,000).

Demanding sectors. In one of the peak periods of the Canarian economy, the Islands came to have a construction sector that created more than 140,000 jobs in 2007. Then came the real estate crisis and ended this niche of job creation, which without However, it has managed to grow in times of pandemic. But the greatest demand is in the tourism sector, from which some Canaries exclude themselves (they refuse to be “the waiters of Europe”) or do not finish accessing, largely due to the language barrier.

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