Juan Carlos Rico

When nature brings order to tourism


Juan Carlos Rico

When nature brings order to tourism

(A few days on the islands of La Gomera and Hierro)

"The human being is part of nature and his war against it is, inevitably, a war against himself. Rachel Carson

The three problems caused by mass tourism

They fundamentally affect the natural, urban and monumental environment, including all its modalities: 

All of them are intrinsically related: the environmental one that ends up entering in one way or another in the city; the urban one, that as we are verifying in these last years, moves away its citizens towards the periphery and eliminates the daily life in its center; to the patrimony that both this in a natural and urban scope, intoxicates the nearest surroundings with all the required infrastructure.

In a previous article of mine Tourism: towards the consumption of culture? I analyzed three areas particularly affected from an urban point of view: 

Later, in a second installment, "Museums, could it be like this? , I exposed monumental deterioration. Following that process I intend to do so now in the third area, the natural one, after having spent a few days on both islands.

Natural controls

Sometimes there are several circumstances, which have the enormous luck to organize life in a certain environment, creating a natural barrier, or if you want to express it more appropriately, a filter that, as more and more cities are doing artificially, limits the access of indiscriminate tourism.

Uncomfortable communications due to the conditions of the territory, roads with curves and more curves between cliffs and cliffs, which require continuous attention, caution and slowness, making very short distances, become very long in their temporary duration in exchange for breathtaking views that allow numerous viewpoints, where you can rest a little.

The same happens with the wide range of trails offered on both islands, both in the Laurisilva of La Gomera and in the Canary pine forest of Hierro, not lacking in difficulty, which only in some cases are possible for children and older people.

Four points

1. The islands of multiple views (Study of the characteristics of the territory and its perception).

Every time I go through natural spaces, I have been concerned about how their observation can be enhanced and, perhaps by deformation, I have tried to apply all the research carried out in closed spaces, where I have developed all my professional activity. I am aware that they are two absolutely different problems, although I believe that they have some parameters in common.

This is the reason for my special interest in viewpoints: the location to obtain the most suitable observation point, their design, their construction and their use. I was commenting on the multiple viewpoints that accompany the winding route of their roads on the two islands; now I am going to talk about two specific ones on each of them.

Within a very current line in these typologies, it is a cantilevered rectangle, with all its glass walls including the floor, which seeks to maximize the prominence of the environment and that there is no visual barrier between the viewer and nature. It emphasizes the landscape to the maximum, although for some visitors there is a rejection caused by vertigo.

Laurel forest in La Gomera. Trails 

On my first trip to the Canary Islands in the 80s of the last century I went to Lanzarote where I had the privilege of meeting him personally. He had achieved something unheard of at that time: social awareness of the environment in the population. There was no advertising on the roads, every neighbor kept his immediate environment clean and what is more impressive, there was not a single piece of paper on the whole island. Unfortunately, in my opinion, their legacy has been disfigured by an excessive formalism that I have discussed with those responsible in later years in my interventions on the island. The viewpoint of El Hierro is an excellent example of the best of its proposals, with an exquisite choice of observation point accompanied by several levels, terrace and restaurant to enjoy it in all its possibilities.

2. From the resort to the natural pools (The difficulty of applying the usual leisure models of mass tourism and its standardized typologies).

Nature makes it impossible to locate the leisure prototypes demanded by mass tourism: quick and convenient access to all kinds of facilities that complement it, closely related to consumption. In both La Gomera and Hierro, this type of infrastructure is impossible both because of the massive destruction of the environment it would entail and because of its high economic cost. 

All this is replaced by the use of natural possibilities, such as seawater pools continuously renewed, clean with a seabed of volcanic rocks and countless marine species that can be observed with a simple aquatic glasses. It is true that, to access them, given the steep terrain, you have to negotiate numerous steps of irregular layout, metal stairs to enter the water with the constant swell.

3. From the shopping mall to the modest supermarket (Limiting access to consumption)

Derived from the previous point, there is no need to clarify that, if there are no large resorts, neither are their companions dedicated to the consumption of multiple offers. In those small places described, there are at most a few benches and wooden tables and in some cases a barbecue for the bathers to cook their food brought from home.

4. From imposition to culture (Maintaining the vital behavior of its inhabitants)   

Perhaps it has been the most important learning of my stay in these islands, from the daily habit of greeting the neighbors you pass in the street, to the direct and natural treatment with the staff, in the simple act of doing the daily shopping, in the small supermarkets without concessions to useless consumption on their shelves, passing through the presentation of a book in La Restinga in Hierro, which I met by chance on my walk and where, all attendees, from the elderly sitting on folding chairs and wooden benches, to children running from one side to another, listened in silence to the memories of the author's games in his childhood and youth in those same streets and the sea.

I would have liked to take the microphone to tell them how privileged they were, as in those ancient civilizations where nature was sustenance and worship at the same time, but it would have been absurd, because they already knew it.

When, from my terrace in Hermigua in La Gomera, I saw the neighbors of a certain age going up and down with bags, by those irregular stairs and very pending of their houses, I was sure that they would have told me that the effort compensated them, that it was a very small price in front of the enormous benefit of maintaining their life as they want it.

Yes, we are talking about CULTURE with capital letters, as I said in my first article Tourism: towards the consumption of culture, without it we become a simple image lost in the memory of the cell phone. In La Gomera and Hierro, I have seen very few cell phones, only a few to take pictures of the dazzling nature and then at home, in privacy, to look at them and remember with amazement, not to boast in front of acquaintances.

A bittersweet farewell

I do not like to end with this note, but it would not be honest if I do not do it: in the days of stay in Hierro, arrived in front of us a maritime rescue ship that brought migrants arriving from Africa in a patera, where they find, recognized by the national media, the solidarity of the neighbors who even welcome them temporarily in their homes, which makes this island even bigger.

Looking from the plane at the powerful profiles of these two islands, I was able to confirm something that I intuited perhaps naively: nature is not that inert, passive and silent being before our outrages, I am sure that sooner rather than later, as things are, it will make us pay dearly for it.

Will these reflections be of any use, I wondered; after all, these were the islands at the end of the world.

(Note: images courtesy of Natividad Hdez Claverie / Carlos Rico)


Juan Carlos Rico holds a PhD in Architecture from the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, Art Historian from the Faculty of History of the University of Salamanca, Sociologist and Philosopher from the UNED. He is currently studying Social Anthropology. Museum curator. He coordinates a multidisciplinary team for the investigation of the exhibition fact and its relation with the space, which has been reflected in several publications.

Research project 1986-2022


Thematic bibliography. Books, articles and conferences 1986-2022


In accordance with the programs of the European Union, the ICOM (International Council of Museums) and the ILAM (Latin American Institute of Museums), he conducts workshops in several European and American universities, where he is also a regular lecturer.


The authors are responsible for the choice and presentation of the facts contained in this document and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of Tourism and Society Think Tank and do not commit the Organization, and should not be attributed to TSTT or its members.

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