“It Ruins the Vacation Feeling” Tourists and Refugees Cross Paths on Gran Canaria

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Gran Canaria’s tourism industry is doing all it can to survive the coronavirus. Some luxury hotels are even hosting the increasing numbers of migrants arriving from across the ocean. It is a clash of two worlds.

By Dialika Neufeld und Philipp Spalek (Photos)

One week after Teodora posted her hotel review on Booking.com, several tour buses full of new guests pull up in front of the Servatur Waikiki hotel in Playa del Inglés on the evening of Nov. 12. The new arrivals, wearing gray, red or black sweatsuits from the Red Cross, disembark and form a line. Unlike the German, British and Dutch tourists checking into the Hotel Riu Papayas next door, where the palm trees are wrapped in lights, the new arrivals have no luggage with them. The new Waikiki guests are carrying their belongings in transparent plastic bags, mostly just some papers and a mobile phone. They had to throw their backpacks into a dumpster down at the port. “Everything is contaminated,” they were told.

“It’s all very family-friendly here. Children can shake a tail feather at the nightly mini-disco, while parents can relax in the chill-out zone with an adults-only tag. The pool’s got a shallow bit for the little ones, too,” reads the hotel description on the TUI website.

The new guests, though, have no idea what is awaiting them. Most have never stayed in a hotel before. They are from Morocco, Mali, Guinea and Senegal and traveled to the Canary Islands on board open fishing boats across the Atlantic. They have spent the past several nights sleeping on damp ground down at the port of Arguineguín, in an overcrowded tent camp across from the banana boat rental. Now, though, they are checking into the Waikiki, where the Tiki Bar has recently been cordoned off. It is a strange limbo they find themselves walking into on this November day.

Question from Katharina on Holidaycheck.de: Hi. Is the hotel open at the moment? Thank you. Response from Bine: Yes, filled with around 1,000 refugees.”

Waikiki is a themed hotel with 513 rooms. Everything here screams “Hawaii,” almost as though Gran Canaria wasn’t exotic enough for its European guests. “Live aloha,” reads a sign above the beds in some of the rooms, while food is served in the Kalua Restaurant. A huge great white shark protrudes from the kiddie pool, which is called the Hula-Hula Park.

The new guests move into their rooms in one of the five buildings that make up the resort complex. They are sleeping two or three to a room. Journalists are not allowed to visit them there, though it is possible to speak with them elsewhere and to accompany them during their daily lives in Playa del Inglés.

Room 435, Omar

When asked to describe his life in the Waikiki, Omar replies: “Wait a sec.” He then sends video clips from his mobile phone that start with him standing in the bathroom and brushing his teeth with a blue toothbrush. He washes up and then heads out to the balcony to hang up his towel to dry. In the clip, he looks not unlike a student at a theater school acting out a vacation scene, but it is anything but holiday for Omar. He asks that his real name and room number not be published, concerned that it could create problems with security personnel or officials. Omar says he feels stuck.

There is an abstract painting with a lot of yellow hanging above Omar’s bed, perhaps some kind of tropical flower. A shoulder bag, which he takes with him everywhere he goes, is lying on his bedside table. It contains his papers, including a confirmation from the Spanish Interior Ministry and a certificate that is supposed to prove that he once worked as an electrician. And his last 50 euros.

Omar is in his mid-20s, a quiet type who thinks for a beat before he says anything. On his wrist, he is wearing one of those bracelets you get at an all-inclusive resort that you can only remove with scissors. His room number is written on it in black ink. Omar arrived in the port of Arguineguín, located 16 kilometers west of Playa del Inglés, three weeks ago after spending three days on the Atlantic. The Coast Guard pulled him out of the sea along with 22 others. More than 8,000 people like Omar arrived in the Canary Islands in November alone, part of the more than 20,000 for the whole year.

The pandemic has shifted the migration routes. With overland borders in Africa largely closed, an increasing number of people are choosing the more dangerous passage across the Atlantic. The numbers are also climbing because the coronavirus has made life even more difficult for those already struggling to get by. The governments of countries like Mali, Senegal and Mauretania are not able to produce generous aid programs to help people make ends meet.

“We all have to die somewhere,” Omar says, adding that he wasn’t afraid during the journey. Once he arrived, he was given a black sweatsuit, the uniform of the new arrivals. He immediately changed, throwing his old clothes into the trash. He then spent a week sleeping on the ground with no running water. His clothes were constantly damp, there was never enough food and, he says, the lines in front of the few portable toilets took forever.

The media took to calling the reception area at the port the “Camp of Shame.” For a time, there were around 2,000 people living there, though the tents were only meant for 400 migrants. The press showed up, as did politicians and refugee officials. The horrific images from the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos were still fresh in people’s minds.

Omar stepped into his room in the Hawaii-themed hotel for the first time on Nov. 15, a double room type 1, with two single beds, a TV and a bathroom with a shower. He shares the 25-square-meter (270-square-foot) room with one other occupant.

The Waikiki hotel is right in the heart of Playa del Inglés, one of the best-known tourist towns on the island, with retirees playing mini-golf around the corner, swingers visiting the nearby swinger club and German football fans rooting on their team at the Kölschen Eck. Ever since they have been allowed to leave the hotel, Omar and his friends have gone down to the main beach almost every day. On their way, they pass the gay resort and the Tutti Frutti Bar, with the hotels sporting a luminous sign reading “Frohe Weihnachten,” German for Merry Christmas.

Omar says that he has seen hotels like the Waikiki back home in Morocco, but only from a distance. People like him, he says, aren’t allowed in.

With “people like him,” he means someone who lives with their 11-member family in a tiny apartment. He draws the floorplan on a scrap of paper and points to a small square in the corner. “This is where I slept”: on a mattress right next to the refrigerator. He also means someone who has learned a trade but still lives hand-to-mouth, earning money one week but nothing the next. Since the arrival of the coronavirus, the situation has grown even worse.

Omar says that he was once in love and that they had wanted to get married. He probably even could have scraped together the dowry, he says, from his periodic electrician jobs and from driving his motorcycle taxi. “But what kind of life could I have provided her?”

Then a man showed up from a big city: “Someone who had everything,” a house, a car. He asked her family for her hand, Omar says, and then he never saw her again.

From his room’s balcony, Omar looks out on palm trees and the other buildings in the Waikiki complex, along with the large pool to the left, where all-inclusive guests usually throw their towels onto the sunbeds. On the internet, there is a video of this pool, shot by a guest from his balcony a while back. It shows how the day starts at the Waikiki when the hotel is full of vacationers instead of refugees: The tourists rush out to the pool at 8 a.m. to reserve the best spots.

Now, though, the pool is closed off and all is quiet. Nobody should get the impression that migrants in Europe are living in the lap of luxury.

There are, though, plenty of fake photos kicking around the internet allegedly showing refugees splashing around in hotel pools. Indeed, Omar’s current lodgings provide welcome ammunition for right-wing internet trolls and populists who are now claiming on their Facebook pages that Africans are being given “luxury vacations for free.”

“But all I want to do is get away from here,” says Omar, “and get off the island.” The Waikiki is nice, he says, “but I didn’t come here to live in a fancy hotel.” All he wants, he says, is a normal life and a job to feed his family. “How can I get from here to the mainland?” he asks. He wants to go to Germany, he says, but he’s afraid of being deported from the Canary Islands before he even gets a chance to continue his journey.

The very first thing he wants to say is: “I would like to give my thanks to all the helpers from the Red Cross. Gran Canaria is a nice place. Good people live here. No problems thus far.” Just that he hasn’t yet been able to find work. That is the question that he goes to sleep with, and which is still there when he wakes up: “How can I find work here?”

People like Cheikh, who didn’t come through Morocco, but instead took the long Atlantic route from Senegal – around 1,500 kilometers across open ocean – can be recognized by the fact that their skin is peeling off their body as though they were badly sunburned. From their arms, from their legs. The soles of Cheikh’s feet are also peeling off, hanging beneath his feet like a pair of flipflops. He says his feet spent two weeks in the saltwater that had collected in the bottom of their boat.

He is currently on his way to the beach, where he often sits in the sand, looking out at the sea and waiting.

Cheikh says there were 120 people on board the pirogue that took him across the ocean. Their provisions ran out after a week, he says, and he had nothing to eat and very little to drink for five days. He even resorted to drinking saltwater.

According to an estimate from the International Organization for Migration, one out of 16 people who attempt the Atlantic route die. The Coast Guard has found deserted boats on several occasions. And in October, fire broke out on a boat from Senegal carrying 200 people. At least 140 of them lost their lives. In total, far more than 500 people are thought to have lost their lives trying to reach the Canary Islands in 2020 alone. Cheikh says he was protected by God.

What he really needs, though, he says, is a decent pair of pants. He is still wearing the same clothes he had on in the port weeks ago, he says – and you can tell he finds it embarrassing.

At the Waikiki, Cheikh lives in the building to the far right, where the others from sub-Saharan African countries have been put up – from places like Mali, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The other four buildings are reserved for people from the Maghreb countries of North Africa. That ratio is roughly consistent with the nationalities of the people who are currently being pulled out of the sea by the Coast Guard.

The hotel residents are only supposed to leave their rooms during mealtimes, and they say that security personnel are quick to show up if someone is hanging around in the hallways. They eat in shifts, one building at a time. Today, breakfast was oatmeal, a bun and yoghurt.

“I love my country, I really do,” says Cheikh. “If I could feed my family, I wouldn’t be here.”

He says that when he called his family in Senegal from a phone he borrowed from another Waikiki resident, his children didn’t cry. Cheikh has a boy and a girl, both still young, he says. But they know why their father left. He wants to help harvesting the fields in Spain or Italy so he can send some money home. “I’m ready,” he says. “I can start right away.”

On his way to the beach along the Avenida de Tirma, Cheikh passes the apartment complex belonging to Tom Smulders. They don’t know each other, but their lives are connected.

Smulders is a 70-year-old from the Netherlands and is vice president of FEHT, the Canary Islands hotel federation. The organization represents hotels, restaurants, golf courses and spas, all of which are struggling. His own complex is called Corona Verde, which isn’t perhaps the best name for these times.

Smulders has been living on the island since 1976, a well-tanned individual in a pink shirt and Airpods in his ears, since his telephone is constantly ringing – a function of the fact that, as spokesperson for the hotel industry, he has given almost 50 interviews in the last several weeks.

When Smulders talks about Gran Canaria, he says the island is a “paradise” and starts singing the Harry Belafonte song “Island in the Sun.” He says it takes him just five minutes to get to the beach and there are plenty of hiking, climbing and even nude sun-bathing opportunities to be had. Whatever you want, he insists. This year, though, has only given him gray hair. His paradise has been sullied a bit.

The downturn actually got started back in fall 2019, with the bankruptcy of the travel conglomerate Thomas Cook, says Smulders. Then, COVID-19 arrived, and some 200,000 vacationers had to leave the Canary Islands within just one week in March, he says. In early June, the first tourists started returning, only for the Canaries to tick back up into the red level in August – “just when I was getting the feeling: Things are finally looking up.” And then, the refugees arrived.

“The images from the port were the worst. There was no humanitarian reception,” he says, “it was simply chaos.” The government refused to bring the new arrivals to the mainland, in part because they feared doing so would encourage more people to make the journey. The result, though, was that Gran Canaria joined Lesbos and Lampedusa as European islands left to deal with the refugees on their own. There were protests. “We don’t want the same situation as in Italy and Greece,” Smulders says.

On Sept. 2, his federation sent a circular to hotel operators on behalf of the government and the Red Cross, called “Accommodation for Immigrants.” That was how it began.

It didn’t take long for the first hoteliers to respond. Their buildings were completely empty anyway. Soon, 500 migrants moved into the Vistaflor, a collection of holiday apartments. “It was ideal,” says Smulders. The complex was a bit out of the way, a place where the migrants wouldn’t cross path with tourists too much. He is eager to avoid mixing the migrants with the vacationers, believing it to be bad for the island’s image.

The head of Vistaflor was quite honest, Smulders says. “He said: My back is against the wall. By taking in the migrants, I’m saving my own business.” The government pays around 45 euros per night for each migrant. And the director was again able to pay his staff, suppliers and the baker.

Now, says Smulders, the situation is such that less than 10 percent of the 145,000 beds on the island are occupied by tourists, with just over 4 percent of them, around 6,000, being used by migrants.

Smulders says that last-minute travel agencies at the airport are now sometimes hearing things from travelers like: “But I don’t want to stay in a refugee hotel!” Other than that, though, he says, there are very few conflicts. There was just one occasion, he relates, when he had to intervene when young men who had been put up in an apartment complex would regularly play football on the public field. But the pitch was right next to a bar where fathers liked to drink a beer while watching their sons play soccer. One might wonder why they didn’t simply play together. But Smulders arranged for them to play at a different time. “That was the solution,” he says.

But as the months went by, the port still hadn’t been completely cleared and, in November, the Waikiki also announced its decision to take in around 1,000 refugees, the situation began to change, says Smulders. Many on Gran Canaria began saying it was a bridge too far.

Gran Canaria joined Lesbos and Lampedusa as European islands left to deal with the refugees on their own.

Why? Because it was too close, he says – almost right in the middle of the tourist area, with hotels right next door. “It ruins the vacation feeling.”

Shortly before the Waikiki made its announcement, Gran Canaria had once again been cleared for vacationers. One might call it bad timing if it wasn’t our humanitarian duty to provide people with adequate shelter. Since the middle of December, though, the Canaries are once again considered a corona risk area.

Smulders adds, though, that corona is to blame for the fact that his own apartment complex is largely empty. Thus far, he says, none of his few guests have voiced any concern about the young men living in the Waikiki. But there is concern that that could change.

“All migrants are to have been moved out of the hotels by Dec. 31,” he says. That, at least, was the demand issued by his federation. They wanted the government to take over responsibility for housing them.

That deadline, though, wasn’t met. And it still isn’t totally clear where all of the people are to be housed. The government has set up a tent camp on a former military base near Las Palmas, but it only has enough room for 1,000 people and the media has reported that conditions there are unsatisfactory. Allegedly, up to 20 people are packed into just one tent and there is no light or showers available. Additional camps are under development.

According to a Dec. 28 report in the Spanish daily El Pais, up to 7,800 migrants and refugees are still living in tourist facilities. A few hundred people have since moved out of the Waikiki, says Smulders, but the hotel isn’t yet empty. Omar and Cheikh are still there.

Once their corona quarantine was finished, Ayoub and Nabil left their room for the first time. Since then, they have gone swimming in the ocean every day, just like back home in Morocco, they say, just that the waves are bigger there.

Right now, they are sitting at the stairs up from the beach, where the tourists wash the sand off their feet in the showers. Behind them is a bar called Zum Blauen Engel, where a group of Germans is just starting in on the next round of beer and has apparently settled in for an extended drinking session. It’s something that Nabil noticed soon after his arrival, he says. “It’s totally normal here for people to drink beer or whiskey.” His tone isn’t judgmental, it’s more one of curiosity, like a student making a trip abroad. “And the women don’t wear long robes to go swimming,” says Ayoub. When the two see a woman in a bikini, they giggle like 12-year-olds.

Ayoub is just 16 years, at least that’s what he says, and it’s not hard to believe him, with the peach fuzz on his upper lip and crooked smile. Nabil has a bit more of an athletic build than his friend, a 17-year-old who says he is often referred to as “the Brazilian” because of the darker shade of his skin – an appellation that he quite likes.

Ayoub and Nabil have known each other since childhood, spending their early years together in a slum in the Western Saharan port city of Dakhla. The quarter was then razed, and their families were moved into a housing project.

Nabil brushes the hair from his forehead to show a scar that bears testimony to their friendship. He says he got it from Ayoub when they were playing soccer as young children. Ayoub is a goalkeeper while Nabil plays defense. They share a room at the Waikiki.

Ayoub says that he always dreamed of becoming an ambulance driver or a policeman. Nabil says his dream had always been to emigrate to Europe.

Now that he’s in Europe, he regularly posts videos and photos to his Facebook page. They show Nabil on the sofa in his hotel room, Nabil on the beach promenade, Nabil in front of the Christmas tree in the shopping center, with Spanish music in the background. He shows a TikTok video on his mobile phone of an overloaded refugee boat landing on a Canary Island beach full of tourists. The video is a couple of years old, but it is still making the rounds on social media, says Nabil. “Look at that,” he says. The trip to Europe has become an internet hit among the youngest as well.

Their fathers are fishermen, they say, adding that they have been familiar with the sea since they were four. With that background, they claim they weren’t afraid. Ayoub spent two-and-a-half days at sea, Nabil four. The photos on their mobile phone make it almost look like they were on a school field trip.

Ayoub wraps his arms around himself, his pants are still wet and he doesn’t have anything to change into. He does, though, have a plastic bag in which he carries his new sneakers. He bought them for 25 euros in a tourist shop – his first big purchase in Europe.

His father sent him money for the shoes from back home. Ayoub pulls them out of the bag at every opportunity, showing them to everybody he knows in the Waikiki. When his family calls from Dakhla, he holds them up to the camera of his phone, like a treasure that he dug out of the sand on a distant Atlantic island.

In the evening, when the lights start going on one after the other in the rooms of the Waikiki and the young men return from their excursions to the beach, lining up to get their temperature checked by the security guards and showing their wrist bands, you can watch the reactions of the few tourists walking past the hotel. There’s the older guy in a tanktop and sun hat, who shakes his head and mumbles: “All these boat people, they’re everywhere.” There are the two women from Münster, who are staying in the neighboring hotel: “They’re all so peaceful.” The hotel where they are staying has blocked off the wing facing the Waikiki, just to be on the safe side.

“Of course I’ve realized that we’re not welcome by everyone,” says Nabil.

After eating dinner in the Kalua dining room, Nabil and Ayoub sit down in their room beneath the abstract flower and call home to their mothers. Nabil says it’s enough to just hear his mother’s voice and he starts crying.

Yesterday, a woman from the Red Cross took them aside and told them they would soon be moved to a hostel for underage migrants. The Waikiki is nice, they say, but they’re happy to move. They heard that there is a football pitch at the new hostel and you can learn Spanish.

Nabil says he dreams of returning home a made man. He envisions himself driving back into his home village in a VW Golf, a wonderful car.

A week later, the residents of the Waikiki are asked to refrain from leaving the hotel for 48 hours for safety reasons. A group of right-wingers had shown up in front of a hotel in Arguineguín and started insulting and threatening the residents. “Out with the Moors!” they yelled, and “Bastards!” Those kinds of things.

The Port

On a Saturday morning in December, boats have once again appeared on the Coast Guard’s radar. The police have gathered in Arguineguín to welcome the new arrivals and the helpers from the Red Cross are there too.

Since the removal of the controversial reception camp that had stood here for three-and-a-half months, a temporary facility is now assembled for each new arrival and then immediately removed. Night after night, morning after morning.

The Coast Guard ship enters port at 9:45 a.m. carrying around 80 men from the Maghreb, along with a few women and a couple of children. They look exhausted, with some apparently unnerved and others taking selfies. Among them is a young girl, perhaps three years old, with braided hair and blue socks full of holes. She isn’t wearing shoes. The helpers wrap a blanket around her shoulders. As her mother undresses in the tent, the child looks out through a slit in the side at her new life.

An elderly German couple is standing at the barricade that has been set up, Johanna and Jürgen from Stuttgart. Jürgen is wearing a straw hat. The two of them are staying in a nearby hotel. “We saw them arrive from our window and we thought we’d take a look.” It’s something you otherwise only see on television, says Jürgen.

Der Spiegel

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