The Ballards - Spain Fuerteventura


By August 2010 the global recession had hit The Canaries hard, due to a glut of over-ambitious construction fuelled by the Spanish housing bubble in turn fuelled by of older UK residents cashing-in their UK property profits and retiring, or semi-retiring, to the sun.
There has always been a pent-up demand for "Britain in the sun": a recent survey has revealed that 42% of UK residents would leave the country if they could. Reasons cited are high taxation and over-regulation, but mainly our weather.
Whilst I am always suspicious of statistics (remember, 66.781% of all statistics are entirely made up) I suspect this is more accurate than most.
Over the centuries many attempts have been made to re-create British civilisation but with extra added sunshine: India, America, The West Indies, Gibraltar, South Africa, Singapore and Australia have all seen large expatriate communities and the current exodus to Spain is part of a long and honourable tradition.

However, the UK Government's weird refusal to update foreign-paid pensions in line with inflation and the pound's slide against the Euro (which may yet reverse itself following the Euro's recent issues with Greece, Spain and Ireland) have conspired to reduce the pensioners' disposable income by up to a third, and the freeze-up in the UK housing market plus the downturn in UK property prices have together reduced the number of UK people able to retire to the sun, hence the slowdown.

I can understand the reduction in the number of UK tourists to the Canaries: the holiday industry here is hugely dependant on the UK market, and the UK travel market is highly dependant upon the apparent disposable income of so many UK families. Not only has there been a huge downturn in the number of people in the UK wishing to take short-haul foreign holidays in the last couple of years but the £/Euro exchange rate, so long at about €1=£0.66 changed to €1=£0.82 in 2008 and although it is slowly recovering this makes everything in the €-zone expensive for Brits. And Fuerteventura is not cheap, despite it's Duty Free status: everything has to be flown or shipped in from the mainland and there is, let's face it, serious over-pricing going-on. We found it hard to get a meal for 4 for less than €50 (£41), and it was often €60 (£49). Plus I suspect the issue has been one of supply not rising to meet massively over-inflated expected demand. Wow, judging by the amount of abandoned building projects here in Corralejo, they must have been expecting the number of UK and Irish house-purchasers, not just tourists, to treble over early-decade numbers. This was always going to be unsustainable, where did they get their figures from?

What has been left is a hotch-potch of quickly, badly-built villas on too-small plots with inadequate water-supply and drainage facilities in what is close to desert conditions. If they were all full the road system would be woefully inadequate as well.

Fuerteventura has, however, suffered from a glut of EU-funded "infrastructure improvement" schemes such as the ring road around Puerta Del Rosario, the capital. One of the busiest roads on the island, it has been constructed entirely of 2-lane road and whilst the junctions are all split-level roundabouts (as one should expect) the required cuttings and bridges through which the ring road passes have all been constructed tightly to this width, dramatically increasing the future costs of dualling. Doh! The money saved has been spent on the most ridiculously high-spec tarmac cycle/jogging lane running alongside the road. This has three lanes: two for cyclists and one for joggers segregate by beautifully painted white lines, and even has signposts, little rest areas with seats and pergolas alongside and at the ends, where they join roads, little bicycle Give Way signs. I'm as keen a cyclist as anyone, but in a rural area this sort of sophistication is way over-the-top. Elsewhere many cycle tracks have been constructed, mainly about 25 yards from the roads, but in practice it's too hot to cycle and what cyclists there are continue to use the roads. Many of the infrastructure projects smack of make-work. Remember, it's your money the EU is spending.....

Construction methods seem to favour the American subdivision "build the roads and services first, then add the houses" model we saw in the rest of Spain, which makes practical sense and which we are now seeing increasingly in the UK. But is there fibre in those ducts, I ask? The answer is, of course, "no" and the predominant broadband connection type is 3G dongle which is expensive, slow and unreliable. ADSL is available but we see no sign of the higher 20MBit+ broadband speeds promised elsewhere in Europe (and even in the UK, despite BT's hugely prolonged holding action against fibre-to-the-home).

I'd forgotten about the ludicrously complex T-junctions Spanish roadbuilders design, with little white painted lanes, arrows, Give Way and Stop signs at the simplest of junctions. These were prevalent in the 1960s when I started going abroad as a child and at the time I analysed them very carefully before finally concluding that they were clumsy, over-complex and confusing: most would be better replaced by very simple roundabouts. And that, indeed, is what is slowly happening....
Like many parts of Europe Fuerteventura has been invaded by roundabouts: we do seem to have persuaded European road-builders that this UK export is worth having. I know they were invented in the US but the UK has perfected them, and they are without a doubt the answer to the free flow of traffic and, indeed (surprisingly), urban traffic calming. Traffic-lights a la USA are a complete joke: quite possibly the most inefficient way of using the shared tarmac at a junction, especially outside peak traffic hours (having said that, the ability to turn right on red goes some way towards ameliorating this...). Personally, I quite like the US rural 4-way stops, but stopping and starting again at every junction is very inefficient and wasteful on brakes and petrol.
The only issue with roundabouts is political: increasingly politicians are meddling with road design in order to "calm" traffic, instead of freeing it. This may be suitable in some urban areas away from arteries, but elsewhere is downright stupid and counter-productive. Roundabouts increase efficiency and the flow of traffic, so must be removed and replaced by (or "improved" by adding) traffic-lights, which of course increase traffic jams; and by this they intend to persuade people that going by car is less convenient. Of course this is simply untrue: up to about 70 miles of travel the car is hugely more convenient than any other mode of transport. Between 70 and 700 miles the light aircraft is King: beyond that the commercial aircraft is of course King. Train travel is not the answer to any of these questions, and Eurostar's greater convenience through lesser security will only last as long as the Mad Mullahs take to put a suitcase bomb on a train timed to explode in the tunnel. Then the security will catch up with the airlines.

The facilities in Corralejo are weird: old-fashioned traditional Spanish shops (small, dark, dusty, unintelligibly-signposted, only Spanish spoken, open weird hours and anyway usually closed due to "Early Closing Day" or some spurious "Saints Day") mixed with small apartments in the old centre of town, plus a huge number of large, tourist-related, English-speaking high-end shops in the main street trading on the Duty Free status of the islands with a vast disparity in prices: cigarettes are genuinely cheap (~£18 for 200 as opposed to ~£60 in the UK), but alcohol and perfume prices barely differ from large UK outlets. As the retailers don't have to pay Duty they must be making some serious profits per item sold: in effect they are pocketing the Duty. What I find interesting is that shoppers assume that the words "Duty Free" and "Bargain" written across a shopfront automatically translate to lower prices inside. In many cases they don't, and many of the items sold here do not even attract Duty in the EU so why should they be any cheaper here? The rule always remains: check out what the item would cost in the UK first before looking here. And aim, like eBay, for ½ the UK price. Remember, you paid out for coming here: get something back!

However, two good things: many of the amputated RyMonEasyFlotBe flights are now being restored as confidence leaks back in to the markets, and tourist numbers are on their way back up after two disastrous years. Also, because the place is not saturated with tourists, many of the shops are satisfied with what turnover they can get and a slimmer profit margin, so bargains are there to be had. With reduced numbers comes less congestion, so the airport was very quiet and efficient and the roads, whilst still suffering from those terrible choke points in the centres of towns and villages common in both France and Spain, were clear and as fast as the Spain/France "long straight sections linked by lethally sharp non-cambered bends" system will allow.
One thing that struck me, as foreign things often do, as better, was that the car rental offices had windows in the baggage hall as well as the arrivals hall, so you could organise your car whilst waiting for your luggage. There's always a delay between arriving in the baggage hall and your luggage [hopefully] being disgorged, so why not use that time to get your car keys? Simple, but brilliant. And it meant we went straight from the baggage hall to the car park. Airports everywhere else in the world, do at least try to catch up?
We struggled somewhat with the Opel Meriva: the electric parking-brake operation is not obvious (you need to have your foot on the brake to release it), and even then it is unreliable and prevents proper hill-starts being made. It has the ludicrous American Daylight Running Lights (DRL) system which we could not seem to turn off, the passenger seat had no height-adjustment and someone had set the car radio/air-con system to read-out in German: changing that back to English took a little thought. But those minor things aside we thought it was a good car: certainly plenty of room for all the family.

Fuerteventura (the Windy Isle) is popular with kite-surfers, and whilst it looks easy and a great deal of fun I'll bet learning is bloody hard and you need (like water-skiing) to have legs of steel and superhuman balance. No one's travel insurance covers it (unsurprisingly) but it does look really cool. Some of the beaches here are very windy indeed and not really suitable for lying on as you get sandblasted the whole time.

What surprised me was the complete lack of GA infrastrucure: although there is a GA apron at Fuerteventura airport with a promising-looking brace of PA28s and a C172 there is no flying school or rental infrastructure, or even the availability of a P2 island tour. Disappointing.
Likewise the diving, whilst technically OK is, from a wildlife perspective, disappointing. Presumably I've been spoilt by the Red Sea but for a location so far out in the Atlantic there ought to be more interesting fish here.

The Spanish post office system is a complete joke: having to go to the Post office to buy stamps is bad enough, the Post office in Corralejo not being where the maps say it is (since 2009) is less amusing: the opening hours (8.30am to 2.30pm) is some sort of Public Services joke, and the "take a ticket and wait 10 minutes for Senora to finish her mobile phone call discussing with her boyfriend what to have for supper tonight" takes all the fun out of it. Commercial pressures (24-hr stamp vending machines), you're welcome here. The problem is that over the years Post offices in all countries become outlets for all sorts of Government nonsense: we used to use them for supply of driving licences, tax discs, pensions and passports until the Internet came along and washed all that away. The transaction-cost of a passport application on-line has to be 1/100th the cost of a Post office one, and that has not escaped many a cash-strapped Government. Quite what the "Save the rural Post office" campaigns are all about eludes me: the Post office has run at a loss for the last 20 years and sooner or later someone had to staunch the losses. Fax and then e-mail gutted the "real post" (as opposed to junk post) market many years ago; now the private freight companies have all-but gutted the parcel delivery system as well. I ordered a book from Amazon one evening at around 8pm. For £5 I had it delivered to my door by 8am the following morning. Post Office, beat that.

Of course the South Of Fuerteventura (the coldest, and not with the best beaches, so why?) has become Benidorm. High-rises, shaven heads, tattoos, Fish 'n chip shops, Football bars with big flat-screen TVs and Watneys ale. Yuk: don't bother.
Except that beyond the end of the promenade, beyond the chip wrappers and ice-cream splodges, the dodgy West African sunglass sellers and the bottle blondes teetering on their high-heels, is a single unmarked track that goes to the Southern tip of the island. A winding dirt road that eventually gives access to many little uninhabited beaches under the rocky cliffs. Out of the wind the sun is hot and a picnic may be enjoyed. The huge party catamarans and deep-sea fishing boats may pass, the long-distance jet-skiers may pound by, but the rocky outcrops beyond the beach protect you from them landing. It's very relaxing.

You get two very different kinds of Brits in Fuerteventura: the average tourist is a young British or Irish family, usually with small children. British/Irish/German families usually have one child, occasionally two. Spanish families have at least 4 children, often more. Project that down several generations and you see Europe's problem. The Israeli Government have done the same maths (the Palestinian birth rate is 4x the Israeli birthrate): hence the Wall. The eventual solution to Northern Ireland's problems is the same: Catholics will out-bear (and eventually out-vote) the Protestants and Northern Ireland will pass to Eire one day
Ian Paisley: Good Try, but Doomed by demographics...

The other type is the ex-pat: usually late-middle-aged (lots of grey ponytails), grim and determined-looking, picking through the bargain bins in the supermarkets and doing several jobs to stay afloat. But keen to stay and enjoy their England-in-the-sun, many have nothing to go back to but a Council house in Wigan and the dole in the rain.
Perhaps this is, at last, something the UK has benefited from joining the EU. After all, we haven't had the promised cheap booze 'n fags we all voted for in 1973. And cheap European air-travel has only come about thanks to Stelios, not the European Commission.
I don't even need to start on the European project's wasteful beaureaucracy: for example they've taken the American FAA system of aviation regulation that works perfectly well, duplicated it with completely different and incompatible rules, applied it across Europe but then added each countries own CAA's foibles to it to make it even more Byzantine. Which is why we have no European IMC, no PPL/IR, sky-high AvGas prices and a faltering GA infrastructure. Multiply by 10,000 Jobsworths and that's the EU. Madness.