Paradise island no longer wants to be the Caribbean of Galicia

by Lorraine Williamson
island paradise

VILANOVA DE AROUSA – Azure blue and crystal clear water bordering dazzling white sand give the small island of O Areoso in one of the many open estuaries in Galicia a paradisiacal sight. It is not without reason the island has been known to the public for years as the Galician Caribbean

This image attracts countless visitors every year in the summer. However, the consequences of growing crowds are a thorn in the side of the socialist mayor of Illa de Arousa. For years, the municipality has been demanding a more ambitious conservation plan from the regional Ministry of the Environment. A plan that should manage the influx of visitors and put a stop to the annual decline of nature on the island. 

Mayor Carlos Iglesias said: “This summer there have been no major problems with the mass of swimmers on the islet due to bad weather conditions. But once the heat starts to pick up, we will experience all the problems we have had in recent years.” 

‘It’s getting out of hand’ 

Arousa still has a lot to offer! But many of those unique experiences against a backdrop of green, azure blue, and white that can only be had in a place like this, are overwhelmed by the large number of vehicles that flood the city. The occupants of which spread in such a way that “the local population feels expelled” from its own territory, says Ana Millán Dieste, president of the association Arousa en Transición.

“There is a widespread feeling we have reached a limit, and this is getting out of hand. We want to open a debate,” said Millán Dieste. Working groups and debates about the tourism model the island and its residents need will be organised by Arousa in Transition next winter. Furthermore, the model doesn’t seem to have much to do with the “sun, sea, and beach formula”. Which, in any case, “is highly seasonal and precarious.” 

Delicate ecosystem on the island

The islet of O Aeroso actually consists of a dune emerging from the estuary. In addition to archaeological remains from a very distant past, it also houses a delicate ecosystem. There are countless species of flora and fauna, including special water birds.  

The attraction is so great that hundreds of people populate the island every summer. Tourists are not always aware of the importance of the ground they walk on during their stay on the island. However, their uncontrolled presence on the dunes and around the prehistoric monuments threatens to wipe out the island. And not just in a manner of speaking; at high tide, the sea has been flooding the central part of the dune for several years now. This effectively splits the island in two. “When I was little, there was a dune the kids would roll down from,” remembers Mayor Carlos Iglesias. It has now disappeared. 

Mámoa’s 

On that dune was one of the mámoa’s (a kind of dolmens found in Spain and Portugal) of the islet. That was what gave it the nickname “illa dos mortos”. However, the mámoa eventually disappeared. Although the same did not happen with the so-called mámoa 4. This was discovered by the tides and protected with a wall installed by the Ministry of Coasts and Heritage. Then came an excavation that discovered part of a human upper jaw from the Castro period. Castro culture is the archaeological term for the material culture of the north-western regions of the Iberian Peninsula from the end of the Bronze Age to the Roman culture. 

Slow 

To stop the decline of this treasure in Galician waters, the city of Arousana has been demanding for years the implementation of a plan to use and protect the island. The main points will be a limitation of the number of visitors and measures to combat the erosion. The Ministry of the Environment has been working on a plan since 2019, but it is going too slowly. Those who see excesses occurring summer after summer on the delicate dunes are not satisfied with the pace of work. The municipality has already made numerous proposals, from setting visiting quotas to collecting an environmental tax. 

However, the ideas do not take shape. And Areoso – along with the rising popularity of Galicia as a holiday destination – is increasingly overrun by tourists in the summers. Many of them visit the island on their own, by kayak, motorboat, jet ski, or sailboat. However, the impact of these vessels is great. Visitors trample the dunes in flip-flops and walk over the prehistoric burial chambers without batting an eyelid. 

Bitter taste in their mouths

Marta Iglesias, head of the company Piragüilla, provider of nautical and cultural activities, sees it with sadness. She organises tours of the islet and says to La Voz de Galicia: “This week we were with people from Valencia who left with a bitter taste in their mouths. They asked me how it is possible that there is no control over excesses”. 

There are plenty of examples, according to Faro de Vigo: plants are trampled, shells and even shellfish are taken, prehistoric burial monuments are not respected. Also, waste is left behind, damaging the ecosystems on the island. Furthermore, posters with rules that visitors must adhere to have decayed and are barely legible. 

Millán Dieste of Araosa en Transición emphasises that finding a solution requires the commitment of everyone. Every resident, every company, every group, and every government agency involved. 

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