The village of Vallehermoso on La Gomera

Residents of lush La Gomera Island aim to protect it from over-tourism

In the Canary archipelago, the Laurel forest of La Gomera island looks like something from the age of the dinosaurs. Because it is from the age of the dinosaurs. It's lush and eerie, with “trees” that grow horizontally along the ground like enormous vines. In recent times, the UNESCO-protected forest has been threatened by building, forestry and tourists. Locals are figuring out ways to protect this special place.

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It’s hard not to think of Jurassic Park in the Laurel forest. 

The forest is vibrant green and shrouded in clouds. Ferns blanket the floor. The trunks of trees are carpeted in moss. 

It’s otherworldly — one feels transported back in time. 

Tourists can only access about 25% of the Garajonay National Park, on clearly designated trails. Forging your own is strictly forbidden.

Tourists can only access about 25% of the Garajonay National Park, on clearly designated trails. Forging your own is strictly forbidden.

Credit:

Gerry Hadden/The World

Until you stumble upon a discarded plastic cup. 

“Someone here has finished their coffee, said Audrey Fava, a local trekking guide. “And they just tossed their cup on the path. It doesn’t happen too often, but we do find litter regularly in the parking lot.”

Fava stuffed the cup in her backpack. 

In a way, the garbage and Fava’s frustration with it say a lot about La Gomera today — the state of tourism and how locals feel about visitors and their impact. 

It’s not a problem … yet. 

“This forest is very important,” Fava said. “They were once found across Europe, up until the last Ice Age. This one survived.”

In fact, the forest has made it through various global freezes and mass extinctions, partly because the maritime climate has remained more or less unchanged. And because the place is so isolated.

The Laurel Forest is almost always shrouded in mist, as clouds coming off the Atlantic collide with the high mountains.

The Laurel Forest is almost always shrouded in mist, as clouds coming off the Atlantic collide with the high mountains.

Credit:

Gerry Hadden/The World

Not all of the Canary Islands fit that description.

The beach boardwalk on the island of Tenerife is just a 45-minute ferry ride away.  But it’s packed with partiers, all-inclusive hotels and souvenir shops.

“It’s the loud neighbor [that] La Gomera doesn’t want to become,” said Conchi Facundo, sitting in a quiet courtyard a short drive from the Laurel Forest. Facundo manages public access to the forest, which is in a big national park called Garajonay. 

Just a 45-minute ferry ride from La Gomera, there's plenty of partying and sun-bathing to be had on Tenerife.

Just a 45-minute ferry ride from La Gomera, plenty of partying and sunbathing can be had in Tenerife.

Credit:

Gerry Hadden/The World

“In its 40 years, the park has helped attract more people to the island,” Facundo said. “But it also serves as a bulwark against tourism on a massive scale.”

She explained that the park is now a protected territory and that visitors can only access about 25% of it.

You can’t just walk anywhere on La Gomera. Nor can you build big hotels. As for roads, they’ve been kept to a minimum.

The Laurel Forest hasn't changed much since the Tertiary period some 66 million years ago.

The Laurel Forest hasn't changed much since the Tertiary period some 66 million years ago.

Credit:

Gerry Hadden/The World

Facundo said it’s all part of the island’s strategy to keep tourism sustainable — by keeping it small.  Small, she said, can actually bring in more money. Because with mass tourism, you end up spending a lot more on infrastructure. 

“And the jobs associated with mass tourism tend to pay less and be more menial,” Facundo added. 

La Gomera allows only small hotels and rural lodges. People rent out their houses on platforms like Airbnb, too. 

It’s all small-scale stuff. 

But one island tourism official, Fernando Martín, said he thinks it’s already too much. 

“Too many locals are chasing easy tourist dollars, trying to rent rooms, and they’ve stopped doing things like growing food,” Martin said.

Island agriculture in recent years has plummeted.

“The fact that your lunch, and mine, is imported from off-island by boat is not sustainable,” Martin continued. “This, when we have land, we have water." 

Farming has fallen out of favor partly because of tourism, but 32-year-old Iru Izquierdo still works the land. She grows avocados. 

On a recent day, she was scraping weeds away from the tree roots.

La Gomera farmer Iru Izquierdo tends to her avocado trees. She wishes the government would support local food production the same way it promotes its tourist attractions.

La Gomera farmer Iru Izquierdo tends to her avocado trees. She wishes the government would support local food production the same way it promotes its tourist attractions.

Credit:

Gerry Hadden/The World

“Everyone’s attention is on the tourists and how much we can earn off of them,” Izquierdo said. “No one is helping us.”

But, she is trying to flip that dynamic on its head by getting the help she needs from the tourists themselves. She gives them a place to stay, and in return, they volunteer in her fields. 

Like this tourist, who only gave her first name, Marine. She’s here with a companion. They’re from northern France.

“Farming is a great way to get into the local culture,” Marine said. “We might even find some techniques we can adapt on farms back home.”

Izquierdo, the farmer,  hopes this can be a model for a kind of tourism that leaves sweat behind. Instead of plastic cups.

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