British holidaymakers are set to begin flying home from the Canary Islands after a sandstorm triggered “absolute chaos” by forcing a number of airport closures due to high winds and poor visibility.
Spain’s airport operator Aena grounded flights from Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, North and South Tenerife over the weekend, although customer service staff said the airports remained open for passengers.
The islands, a popular destination for British tourists during the winter months, have been engulfed by a dense cloud of sand carried from the Saharan desert across the Atlantic Ocean, with the storm so large it is visible from space.
A state of alert was issued by the regional government on Saturday, with residents advised to stay indoors, close their windows and avoid travel.
Although conditions are expected to persist – Spain’s national weather service said 75mph winds could buffet the Canaries in the coming 24 hours – flights from all airports except South Tenerife will be able to take off on Monday, Aena said in a statement.
Between 12,000 and 14,000 Britons are believed to have been stranded since Sunday.
“It was absolute chaos,” said James Lear – who, with his son Jack, has spent 24 hours waiting for a Tui flight to Cardiff. “The flight times kept being put back. There was nobody from Tui anywhere in the departure lounge.
“Eventually at 10.30pm they started corralling us out, shutting departures. There were four or five Tui guys who had no information – they didn’t even know the plane was in Tenerife.
“They told us they were finding hotels and buses to take us there. Every time we asked for an update, we were told ‘the hotel rooms are booked’.
“At 1am I was told there were only 20 rooms left on the island and was advised to bed down. At 2am I finally got Jack to sleep.”
Greg Horsman, 29, was on holiday with his girlfriend and was due to fly home to Manchester on Saturday evening.
However, they were forced to stay in Gran Canaria for another two nights due to the storm.
“It’s frustrating,” Mr Horsman told PA news agency. “We’re just ready to be home.”
A spokeswoman for Tui said: “We would like to sincerely apologise to customers for the disruption caused by the adverse and changeable weather conditions in the Canary Islands on Saturday February 22 and Sunday February 23.”
Another tourist from Belfast, who managed to return to the UK on Saturday night, told Sky News that the “apocalyptic” conditions had made it “quite hard to breathe”.
The high winds generated by the sandstorm, locally known as ‘calima’, have also hampered efforts to tackle wildfires in Tasarte, Gran Canaria after temperatures soared to 30C and above in recent days.
Around 300 hectares of lands have been left scorched by the fires while 500 people have been forced to leave their homes.
On the neighbouring island of Tenerife, around 1,000 locals and tourists were evacuated due to the risk of wildfires.
Pedro Marin, head of Tenerife’s local government, described the scale of the blazes as “a completely unusual situation”.
Spain’s transport minister, José Luis Ábalos, has meanwhile thanked neighbouring countries for their “solidarity”.