Can the Canary Islands cope with thousands more migrants as tourists return?

By ITV News Correspondent Ben Chapman

When the Covid pandemic prevented sun-seeking tourists from heading to Gran Canaria last year, it didn’t stop all travellers from coming.

This Spanish island off the coast of Africa proved just as tempting for thousands of migrants - risking their lives at sea to reach an outpost of Europe.

And yet with its beaches and resorts lying empty, the welcome wasn’t warm.

Last autumn, a makeshift camp on the harbour became known as the "dock of shame" as more than 5,000 people arrived within two weeks.

How would this holiday island – famed for its hospitality – respond to being a new frontline in Europe’s migrant crisis?

Hotel and bar owners are feeding migrants in Gran Canaria. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Hotels, on their knees because of Covid, took up Red Cross contracts to house and feed dozens of young men.

But a British hotelier, Calvin Lucock, went a step further. Nine months later, he and his Norwegian wife Unn Tove are still providing a home for many of them.

"As a mother," Unn Tove tells me, "I try to reverse the situation. If I had to send my children in a boat to somewhere else, I really wish someone would take care of them."

British hotelier, Calvin Lucock and his Norwegian wife Unn Tove said the migrants have now become a family to them. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Most of their guests come from Morocco, Senegal and Gambia, fleeing poverty.

For Suleman, it was the political unrest in Sierra Leone that prompted his journey. His father and brother have both been killed.

I’m humbled by how little he wants: "To work here as a cleaner or a delivery driver," he says before adding: "My plans were destroyed when I was a little boy."

A short distance from the beach, I watch as more migrants, rescued offshore, are brought into the harbour. They had crammed themselves into a stinking fishing boat for days: the conditions are unimaginable, and yet, they are right before my eyes.

Suleman and ITV News Correspondent Ben Chapman in Gran Canaria. Credit: ITV On Assignment

But the continuing stream of uninvited visitors poses a new challenge for these resorts, just as they struggle to recover from the pandemic. In all, 30,000 migrants have come since the start of 2020.

Russ Mitchell, who runs a bar, tells me: "It isn’t a positive image for a holiday resort. It’s happened in Lampedusa and Lesbos and people will lose confidence."

The Spanish government rejects this. With the EU’s help, it has invested in what are now semi-permanent migrant camps, and says it is well prepared if, as expected, there is another big wave of arrivals this year.

But as the tourists begin to return, there won’t be empty hotels for migrants to stay in this year.

Calvin tells me that for him, being kind and generous to those seeking sanctuary on these islands is a natural response.

But finding a way to accommodate both holidaymakers and asylum seekers will be an enduring challenge for the Canary Islands, long after Covid.

Watch Ben's full report from Gran Canaria on this month's edition of On Assignment, Wednesday 30 June at 10.45pm on ITV