|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.
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....
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.
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.
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.
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
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.