All around the world, economies have been hit hard by the Covid pandemic. Lanzarote’s is no exception, so a visit to the Chamber of Commerce in Arrecife offers a welcome glimpse of a building full of people working hard and productively to try and steer businesses through these tough times.
Interview: José Torres, President of Lanzarote’s Chamber of Commerce
José Torres is the president of the Chamber of Commerce, and last month we asked him for his opinions of the crisis and the road map for the future.
What’s your overall view of the pandemic?
It’s been deeply worrying. There’s no manual for this sort of thing. Previous crises were financial – we know how they work, but with the coronavirus we’ve all been learning by trial and error. We started well, and here in the Canaries we had the double privilege of being an island, but in the end it looks as though the lack of civic-mindedness of certain people has meant that the measures have not been effective. This is a situation which requires a commitment from everyone in society.
What’s the first priority for getting back to normal?
Getting children back to school. That’s absolutely vital, and while their education is hugely important, it’s also vital to allow us to get back to some kind of stability; to let parents go back to work or even work from home properly. Everyone who’s tried to work from home while caring for children knows it’s tough. Now they’re saying that the term may begin with online lessons, but that won’t work. We need to get back to normality and children back in school will transmit that sense of stability we need.
Some people have said that the covid crisis has shown how dependent the Canaries are on tourism. Has it highlighted the need for diversification?
Let’s be realistic here: on these islands we live on tourism and we’re likely to do so for many decades yet, unless climate change puts a stop to it. At the Chamber of Commerce we’ve always been strong defenders of diversification, but we also need to accept the reality of the situation.
When it comes to sectors apart from tourism that we could develop, I think there’s a lot of potential in the “blue economy” (economic activity related to the seas and oceans). Developing renewable ocean resources will bring financial advantages and attract other investments.
Diversification is important and something we need to promote and nurture, but that’s been the case for decades – it’s in the Biosphere declaration, for example, and if it hasn’t happened, then that’s the fault of our leaders. We’ve seen some promising developments with, for example, the gastronomy and food sector, but its still residual. Other islands have resources that Lanzarote doesn’t enjoy, but I think the sea is a resource we could really develop.
What priorities do you think are necessary to stimulate the island’s economy?
First, we need to sort out processes to allow public works to go ahead. This is the key to stimulating the economy, but too many projects get stalled at the planning stage. At the moment there aren’t many big works planned – the Playa Blanca harbour is over 70% finished and the marina at Arrecife is also well on the way but there are many, many smaller works in every municipality.
They also need to be the right works – resurfacing a road brings very little employment, for example.. We need to focus on works that bring jobs and stimulate the economy.
Another priority of ours at the Chamber of Commerce is to grow existing businesses. Start ups are fine, and we have a lively Vivero de Empresas (Business Nursery) which is the launching pad for many companies; but the real challenge is to create bigger companies that are stronger and more stable. This requires a broader vision which may go beyond this island.
Has the pandemic changed anything permanently?
I’d say it’s sped up certain processes that were already on the way – working from home, for example, online business or the cashless society. But Lanzarote is a service economy, and there are things that we’ll always have to go to work for.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I’m naturally optimistic, but I’ve also seen three crises already and know that, while we have the strength and power, we’ll get out of this one, too. Some of us will emerge stronger, others will be washed up on the shore, but with a bit of help we’ll stay afloat.
There are always opportunities in a crisis, as the old Chinese saying recognises. This one has already brought new necessities, new ways of doing things and new products and services.
One key to survival that I think is hugely important is to consume locally. Here on the Canaries that’s vital. If you want your children to get a job or your partner to stay in a job, support the businesses that employ them.