Mike “Miguel” Cliffe-Jones is a British citizen who has made a life for himself on Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands. His business Lanzarote Information is the island’s biggest English language publication. In this interview, we talk migration and how you too can drop everything and start a new life in Spain.
Read an Interview: Lanzarote is often viewed as a lesser island compared to its siblings, Gran Canaria and Tenerife. Thoughts about that?
Mike Cliffe-Jones: Geographically and in terms of population, it’s true. Having travelled around the islands, they are all very different, but each offers its own advantages. I like Lanzarote for the lack of high rise buildings, the stunning volcanic landscape and the simplicity of life here. But we enjoy regular trips to Gran Canaria for shopping and Tenerife to visit historic places like Santa Cruz and La Laguna.
RAI: How hard or easy is it to get settled as a foreigners? Naturally it depends on the country of origin, but as a whole? How foreign-friendly is the island?
MCJ: Pretty easy, especially if you choose to live in one of the holiday resort areas, where there are big international populations. What most people moving here don’t realise is that there is a point for most people where they question their decision to make the move. When you first arrive, it’s exciting and new and you feel like you are on holiday. But after a few months, that wears off, and the frustration with not understanding the language and learning a whole new way of doing things kicks in, as well as the realisation that you have left your support network of family and friends behind you. It does take time, but once you have built up your own, new support network, then it’s all OK.
RAI: What’s the craziest thing to have happened on the island in recent years?
MCJ: The thing that sticks in my mind is when Spain won the football world cup. It was an epic night! A good proportion of the island’s population watched the game on a huge screen on the beach in the capital, Arrecife. Afterwards, it was just incredible, with dancing in the streets, bands of musicians roaming around and everyone in cars tooting their horns.
We also have a huge carnival every year, so we get craziness here often!
“I’m known as Miguel, because Mike doesn’t really work in Spanish.”
RAI: What’s your favorite part of Lanzarote history?
MCJ: I’m fascinated by the period of volcanic eruptions here from 1730 to 1736. I would love to go back and see it all happening. The lava, which flowed for six years, changed the island completely, and in the ensuing years the people here had to change their whole way of life to accommodate the new landscape.
I also think the period when Spain conquered the islands in the 15th century would be interesting as we don’t know much about the indigenous people, known as Guanches. There were some fascinating alliances and all sorts of treachery in those days.
RAI: Alliances and treachery? Like what?
MCJ: Lanzarote was actually conquered by a Frenchman, Jean Betancort, acting for the Spanish. Initially, they were welcomed by the Guanches, and there was an uneasy peace, which wasn’t honoured by all of Betancort’s people. Small battles and wars broke out, there were various love affairs between Guanches and their conquerors, and it took several years until all the various rebellions were suppressed.
RAI: I’ve tried to figure out where you’re from. You use both the name Mike and Miguel, the latter being Spanish, but your Facebook profile says Hong Kong. Can you clarify, and how did you end up on Lanzarote?
MCJ: I’m British, but I was born in Hong Kong and lived there until I was 12. Locally, I’m known as Miguel, because Mike doesn’t really work in Spanish and becomes “Meekay.”
We moved to Lanzarote in 2000. We came here on holiday with our young children in 1999 and fell in love with the place. We decided to sell up in the UK and move here, and we haven’t looked back since.
RAI: Who’s “we”?
MCJ: My wife, Julie, myself and the children. Our kids are Josh and Lucy – they both went through school and college here in Lanzarote. Lucy lives and works in Puerto del Carmen, and Josh is an IT specialist in the UK.
RAI: You’re quite industrious, with several businesses on the island since you arrived. Which one is your biggest success?
MCJ: When we first came here we started a property rental business, which grew over eight years to become the island’s largest estate agency, with four offices and plenty of staff. We moved on from that in 2008, because we wanted a business we could run from anywhere, as we like to travel, and also one we could run on our own. We started our destination website, Lanzarote Information, and it has now grown to become the island’s largest English language publication with close to 2 million unique visitors per year.
I also work as a marketing consultant and I have a few clients around the world I work with, notably The British Triathlon Federation.
RAI: Sound like quite a success, all of it. Any failures?
MCJ: Of course! In business you have micro failures all the time – ideas that don’t work out, for example. On a grander scale, the biggest was over-extending ourselves right before the recession kicked in. I won’t bore you with the details, but it resulted in us having to live hand to mouth for a few years, and we ended up losing a property we should have held on to. It was a tough time for us.
I don’t look back with much regret, though. Everything happens for a reason, and it resulted in the whole family learning a great deal about how to live with no money!
“At the end of the day, money isn’t that important here.”
RAI: For anyone reading this considering moving to the island, is this something they should fear or at least consider, living hand to mouth? Can you make a life for yourself on the island with a regular, steady job or are jobs hard to come by?
MCJ: Our situation was unusual – basically the Spanish banks panicked at the start of the recession, and in our case, they called in a loan, which took all the capital we had set aside to start Lanzarote Information. With any new business, the income is low at the start, so we had to work extremely hard to generate a small income in order to pay the bills and feed ourselves.
For people moving to the island, there are jobs, but especially for non-Spanish speakers, they tend to be in the service sector and low paid. There are good jobs that pay well here, but they are hard to come by. My advice to people thinking about moving here is to arrive with enough money to live on for several months.
They also need to be flexible. People often end up doing something completely different here compared to what they used to do, and many people make up a full time salary with two or even three part time jobs.
At the end of the day, money isn’t that important here. Nobody judges you on the car you drive or the watch you wear, so you can live on much less here than you can in many places.
RAI: How does living in general and running a business in particular differ on Lanzarote compared to mainland Spain or other countries?
MCJ: I can’t speak for mainland Spain, but I can compare it to running a business in the UK. The most important thing to remember is that things are different here. Spain still holds on to many of the administrative excesses of the Franco period, which can be deeply frustrating for anyone trying to run a business. As long as you accept that, and employ professionals to help you navigate the waters, then things usually work out.
The other major difference is in understanding we’re an island 2000 kilometers away from “our” mainland. That means we can’t get everything we want as quickly as we need to. For example, a large part of our business is car hire. Right now it’s Christmas, and there are no cars left to hire! I’ve turned away thousands of Euros worth of business this week because of that. If we were on the mainland, it would be easy to draft in cars from other areas, but here, we can’t do that.
Taxes are low here, and our IGIC [a bit like VAT in the UK] is only 7%, so the cost of living and running a business is much lower than in northern Europe. But our labour costs for social security in Spain are very high, and that’s one of the reasons we chose to start a business where we no longer need to employ staff.
RAI: Do you have any staff at all, or do you run everything on your own?
MCJ: We have no staff – it’s just the two of us! We do use sub-contractors, for example three writers, for some of the work, but we don’t employ anyone.
RAI: Who’s the typical person who contacts you via Lanzarote Information? I mean, the site is in English and aimed at foreigners, but where are they typically from?
MCJ: We’re primarily a tourist website, and our mission is to “Get people to choose Lanzarote as their holiday destination, and then help them to have a fabulous time here.”
Around 50% of our traffic is from the UK, with 9% from Ireland, followed by Germany, Holland and Italy. But we’re visited by people from 142 countries, probably because there aren’t many good websites in other languages.
20% of our traffic now comes from Spain, which reflects the fact that we have grown a strong following with foreigners living in The Canaries, as well as become a good local news source for them.
RAI: I actually used to live in Puerto del Carmen myself a few years ago. That’s how I found you. What’s your favorite place or venue in that town?
MCJ: To be honest, we very rarely go out in Puerto del Carmen. It’s a long way from where we live, and feels very “touristy” to us. When we are there, we like to eat tapas at Restaurante Mardeleva, which looks down on the old harbour.
“Although the house looks very original from outside, we went ultra-modern inside.”
RAI: Where do you live?
MCJ: We live in Haria, in the north of the island – the valley of a thousand palms. We bought our house as a complete ruin in 2005. We really wanted somewhere with space around us, and we have 4,500 metres of land, although we are almost in the centre of the village. It took us over a year of hard work to make it habitable – we basically had to knock everything down and rebuild it, and because it’s a heritage building, at over 150 years old, we had to do everything using the original materials and processes.
Although the house looks very original from outside, we went ultra-modern inside, so we have air conditioning and wifi throughout and it makes an interesting contrast.
It was an amazing experience, very expensive, but we have a lovely home now. We love the village. The population is 642, with very few foreigners. We have a few bars, a couple of shops and a sociedad, and we’re in the most beautiful part of the island.
RAI: Was César Manrique an inspiration when you designed your home? I know his home, possible the most famous home on the island, is a real piece of art.
MCJ: To some extent. Manrique actually lived in our village Haria for the last few years of his life, and not at the house everyone knows in Tahiche. His house here is a two minute walk from our place. Because our property is a “Patrimonio” building of historic interest, we didn’t have a free hand to do too much to change it.
However, we did use some of Manrique’s ideas around materials, incorporating wood with concrete, for example.
RAI: What final advise would you give to anyone considering a move to the island?
MCJ: I’d say that they should examine their motives carefully. If they want to move here to escape problems – for example in a relationship – it won’t work. In fact, moving to a new place will put pressure on any relationship. But if the motives are positive – in our case the primary drive was to find a safe, secure environment to bring up our kids – then it will work out.
When we moved, we went “all in” and that meant selling the house and cars, and moving our whole lives here. Over recent years, I’ve seen many people “try” living here, so they rent out their place “back home” and rent somewhere here. Because they’re not really committed to the move, they often fail, and the first time things get tough, they return home.