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Q&A with Ricardo Melchior, President of Tenerife

Posted by Richard Hammond at 02:30 on Tuesday 13 September 2011

Ricardo Melchior, President of Tenerife, has helped pioneer sustainable tourism on the islandRicardo Melchior, President of Tenerife, has helped pioneer sustainable tourism on the islandAs we launch our Guide to Green Holidays in Tenerife, greentraveller’s Chief Executive, Richard Hammond, speaks to Tenerife's President Ricardo Melchior about the island's drive towards sustainability. 

What makes Tenerife a special destination to visit?
If you go to Kew Gardens in London, the oldest and biggest botanical garden, you will see a large sign that says the Canary Islands have, for their size, the most varied biodiversity in the world.

Tenerife measures about 2,000 sq km and we have the biggest mountain in Spain (3,780 km), the northern part is lush and green while the south is more arid, resulting in a lot of different microclimates. We get snow on the mountains, yet just 10km away, we have fantastic weather of around 38 degrees Celsius.

This mix of microclimates means that our flora and fauna is hugely varied and this is the reason that 50% of our land, around 1000km2, is protected. From this protected land, 50% (around 500km) is forest. Every year, approximately 900,000 new trees are planted, one for every inhabitant on the island and the numbers are always increasing.

Within the arid south is the Teide National Park, which is a World Heritage Site, and I think it's a very important place for all of us -we can see it from almost everywhere on the island. Of the remaining 50% of the island, the other 1,000sqkm, half is agriculture and the other half is populated by towns, villages, tourist resorts and so on. Also the volcanic landscapes, whale and dolphin watching all year round and the variety of beaches.

We believe our island is a very special island and we are always sensitive to sustainability. 

What does this idea of sustainability mean to you?
Sustainability means making sure that every new product or service you make has the utmost respect for the environment. If you make something for use in the air, you have to think about what the effect could be on the sky. Similar, if you make something for use in the sea, you have to think about its effect.

The same can be said for the land - if you make a road, you have to think about minimising the impact and making sure you create nothing that will be irreversible in the future. Whatever you make, it needs to have as little environmental impact as possible. However, this is true only of the last 15-20 years - before that, we didn't have this sensibility. 

So, since the early 1990s, this has taken off, has it?
Yes, the end of the 1980s was the time that we started thinking about ways to use renewable energy, the sand, the soil, the waste energy, the biomass and whether these were actually achievable. 

Yes, I visited the bioclimatic homes today - I was very impressed with that.
Yes, we have the world’s first village of bioclimatic homes with zero carbon emissions. and the biggest PV (photovoltaic) plantin the world at the ITER in South Tenerife! 

The world’s first village of bioclimatic homes with zero carbon emissions.The world’s first village of bioclimatic homes with zero carbon emissions.>> See Rhiannon Batten's article, in which she describes her stay at the bioclimatic homes: The Alternative Tenerife

How many visitors are there from the UK to Tenerife every year?
UK visitors are the most important visitors to the island 1.499,301 in 2010 - 50% of all visitors to the Canary Island are from the UK. We are the most important destination for the UK during the six months of winter, from October to March, and we also have a very high loyalty from UK visitors - more than 70% of our UK visitors have visited the island more than twice. 

And over the last 5 years, what's the average number here?
I think the absolute record of UK visitors was 1.8 million 3 years ago, with all of the Canary Islands having around 3 million visitors, so we contributed to more than 50% overall. The economic crisis caused the numbers to go down so, at the moment, we have 1.3 million approximately and the Canary Islands around 2.5 million, although the numbers are going up. In 2011 so far 932,036 British visitors have chosen Tenerife. 

You said that the efforts for sustainability started 15-20 years ago, late 80s early 90s, what was the stimulus for that?
I think it's education - you have to appreciate the natural environment, your culture. If you remember, we were told during the 60s and 70s to look outside to other cultures, partly because television became popular. They were very turbulent years. After that we started to realise that our country, our place, our type of house, our animals, our flowers - they're also very important and we have to defend them. It is a great privilege living here on this island and we have to give this privilege to the next generation. 

Whale and Dolphin-watching is becoming big business in the waters around TenerifeWhale and Dolphin-watching is becoming big business in the waters around TenerifeSo is the effort for sustainability and tourism focussed on energy, renewable energies, supplying power..?
Renewable energy but also walking in the mountains, hiking in the National Park, observing whales and dolphins, promoting our gastronomy and our wine. Our wine was very famous years ago - Shakespeare even spoke about Tenerife's wine. We exported a lot of wine to the UK 300 years ago.

Also we have relatively old wines, the reason for this is that approximately 120-130 years ago there was a plague in Europe that killed a lot of the world's grapes but it didn't come to Tenerife. The grapes were not originally from Tenerife; they came from Portugal 500 years ago, from Crete and from the Mediterranean area but the disease didn't touch Tenerife, so we have very old wine - wines people have loved for 300 - 400 years. 

And what are some of your favourite examples of sustainable tourism on Tenerife?
I suppose each individual has his or her own favourite example. For me, the first thing is the very clear sky that we have, there's no better place for observing the stars in the night sky. From Las Cañadas (at about 2,200m), you'll be able to see all the stars in the universe and this is the reason that we house some of the most important observatories from this part of the world.

There are two observatories here and in La Palma, but even if you don't have the opportunity to look through telescopes, you'll see a lot of the sky. Next, the Teide National Park is really fantastic. Then our forests, our mountains, our deep valleys and finally our crystal clear seas.

Stargazing is one of Ricardo's favourite examples of what visitors can do on TenerifeStargazing is one of Ricardo's favourite examples of what visitors can do on TenerifeThe whales are a big industry in Tenerife?
Yes, the whales and the dolphins are very interesting but you'll also get to see the underwater volcanic structures, plus a variety of plants and fish. Tenerife has 21 species of cetaceans and it’s one of the few places in the world where you can see whales and dolphins all year round – there are over 500 whales living three miles off the South Tenerife coast.

I visited the dive experience where you do a fly over and you get to visit the various underwater fish and turtles that are there and the guy that was running it was saying very much that there's a huge effort now to conserve what Tenerife has, underwater and above water, and that's obviously a new type of feeling that there is here, to conserve the very asset that you have that people come to visit here for...
Yes, I think this is true. It's also important that you can safely explore all of Tenerife's landscapes. You don't have dangerous fish that you have to be careful with in the ocean or  dangerous animals in the mountains. We don't even have mosquitos. Recently I saw that an American University did a study on where in the world had the best climate - the result was the Canary Islands, the best climate in the whole world!

We have a subtropical climate, so we don't have the heat and the humidity from the tropics, plus we get the cold current returning from the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, we don't have the high temperatures that you get in the Mediterranean in summer, nor the cold temperatures you get in winter. There's only a small difference between summer and winter temperatures - essentially it's always spring time.

So it’s very much a year-round destination, would you say?
Yes, you can have flowers and fruits in your garden the whole year if you want, not only in the spring - this is very special.

In terms of tourism, a central focus of green travel is the public transport element of it and taking people off the roads and encouraging people to use public transport?  An example of this is the tram system in La Laguna, is this something that you're particularly focussing on in the future?
Yes, I think the tram and the train are clear examples of sustainable transport. But now, we also have the buses - you have the bus stops and timetables and info and you can phone to know exactly when you bus will come, A lot of visitors to Tenerife do it by bus. I hope we'll have, within around 6-7 years, a train system so that you don't necessarily need to know the exact name of your destination, you can simply explore. 

Before I came to Tenerife, I went to visit La Gomera (by boat) and there seems to be quite a close association with La Gomera and people moving between the two by ferry. Is this something you're looking at developing more because of what goes on in La Gomera as an alternative to Tenerife?
La Gomera has a very small airport and I think an airport is always necessary for emergencies, but not for making regular flights. From the south of Tenerife, it is a little more than 30 minutes by ship so you don't really need to fly - the island can survive perfectly without an airport, however I understand that you want to have an airport for emergencies, for example, if you were to have a forest fire during the summer months. The ferry is a very good connection - very quick, very nice, and very comfortable!

Tenerife has world class surfing waves. Click on the image to see our guide to Activity Holidays in Tenerife.Tenerife has world class surfing waves. Click on the image to see our guide to Activity Holidays in Tenerife.

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