Sonia Amroun is a 34-year-old entrepreneur from Paris. Last December, she packed her bags to escape the cold weather and coronavirus lockdown in France. Amroun was planning to spend just a month on the island of La Palma, but when she got there she decided to stay. Now she combines her job as the sales manager for the French startup Mobeelity with running Casa Benahoares, a coliving space in the municipality of Los Llanos de Ariadne. “The idea that great minds have to be in a metropolis and living a stressful life to move forward in their careers is over,” she tells EL PAÍS via a video call. “I work 12 hours, seven days a week. But I look at the mountains and I am happy. La Palma is a dream come true.”
The tourism industry in Spain’s Canary Islands has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. The streets of the main tourist destinations remain empty, with less than 40% of accommodation (around 17,000 beds) open for business. The Canary Islands is now the Spanish region with the highest level of unemployment and experts warn that this could spark a deep social crisis. But many businesses have been saved by the bid to attract remote workers. The professionals who arrive in the Canary Islands to work remotely have greater purchasing power and spend more. What’s more, they do not bring with them the negative impact of mass tourism.
The number of remote workers in the region has risen 10% a month since last September, when the Canary Islands regional government announced a €500,000-plan to attract 30,000 of these professionals in a decade. The archipelago is currently home to around 8,000 remote workers from a wide range of countries such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom and increasingly from the United States, according to the Canary Association of Coworking Spaces. This is a new movement that is yet to be addressed in traditional tourism surveys carried out by the National Statistics Institute (INE).
For 22-year-old Tracy Keogh, the rise of remote working represents a broader change in attitudes. Not only did Keogh move from Ireland to the Canary Islands during the pandemic, but she is also the co-founder of Grow Remote, a startup supported by the Irish government that tries to connect businesses with remote workers from across the world. “It’s not just about the self-employed deciding to travel. It’s a paradigm shift, a new way of working,” says Keogh.
Yaiza Castilla, the regional tourism chief in the Canary Islands, agrees that there has been a shift: “During this last year, the idea of working remotely from other places has become stronger.”
Juan Betancor has also witnessed this trend. His real estate business Living Las Canteras – named after the popular Las Canteras beach in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria – has been running since 2010 and manages a number of properties, including 16 beachfront homes. “Up until last year, between 5% and 10% of renters were remote workers. Since October, that number is 90%,” he says. But the real estate business is not as profitable as it once was: while a tourist usually pays between €900 and €1,000 for one week of accommodation, a remote worker pays around €1,400 for the whole month.
Fiona Murray is one of the remote workers who has rented a room from Betancor. The 44-year-old from Ireland left London in October to live by the beach. “My life [in London] had become a nightmare,” says Murray from her balcony overlooking the sea. “Now I work more than before, but I swim every day in the Atlantic.” Murray is the head of Informa, a company that focuses on trade and brokering in Asia.
And it’s not just remote workers who are being drawn to the Canary Islands; the region also wants to attract tech companies. “On this island [Gran Canaria] alone there are 12 digital-animation and post-production companies,” says Cosme García Falcón, the manager of the Society for the Economic Promotion of Gran Canaria (Spegc), which works under the Gran Canaria government. According to his figures, the number of jobs in the tech sector has nearly tripled in just two years, which is allowing local talent to enter the market. Spegc has also just edited a guide called How to Set Up in Gran Canaria, in English and Spanish, which explains the paperwork needed and provides advice for common problems families have when relocating.
Rise of coliving spaces
The growing number of remote workers in the region has seen a rise in demand for different services, especially in cooperative living spaces, says Ignacio Rodríguez, a businessman and executive member of the Global Teleworking Association. With coworking spaces, different professionals share the same office space but carry out their work independently. Cooperative living takes this one step further: it is about creating spaces for residents with similar interests (such as remote working), so that not only do they share an office space, they also share a home where they can continue to exchange work and life experiences. “That is what I think is going to grow significantly, given that coworking spaces have been more affected by [coronavirus] restrictions,” says Rodríguez.
Larger companies have also jumped on the teleworking bandwagon, such as the hotel chain Grupo Mur, which manages four hotels in Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura. “You have to go follow the trends,” says Mario Romero Mur, the managing director of the company. That’s why the company will open a new property in the beach neighborhood of Guanarteme in November.
Interestingly, not all remote workers are heading to the region’s big cities. Sonia Amroun is living in an inland municipality of La Palma where there are just 21,000 inhabitants. She is hoping to attract teleworkers like her to Casa Benahoares, the coliving space she now runs. Carlos Jonay Suárez and Elsa Rodríguez, from Tenerife, are also trying to lure remote workers to the countryside with their initiative Pueblos Remotos (or, Remote Villages). “We want to connect our rural areas with remote workers, connect local talent with local entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs to one another, and in this way, try to generate socio-economic benefits with the least negative impact,” they say by video call. This first project will take place in Icod de los Vinos in the north of Tenerife. Their goal is to bring 10 people from across the world who are willing to work remotely there from May 23 to June 13, on the condition that they will take part in six projects from entrepreneurs in the municipality.
But the coronavirus pandemic will come to an end at some point and many remote workers will likely have to return to their home countries. The region, however, is fighting to ensure that some of them stay or at least return. Fiona Murray, for one, is sold on the idea. “In June I will return to London,” she says. “But I am going to speak with my bosses so that they let me work remotely all of December. I have to keep the Canaries in my life.”
English version by Melissa Kitson.