Monday, June 09, 2014

Built For Tourism: Mallorca's roads

They like their anniversaries in Sa Pobla, even if the anniversary isn't what typically might be thought to have special significance. One hundred years of electricity in 2012 were significant, 135 years of the train in 2013 were less so, as also are 90 years of the first bus this year. But, significant or not, centenary or not, they're all an excuse to look back to times when infrastructure was shaky and partial.

The first bus rolled into Sa Pobla from Palma ninety years ago. It was a further step, one separated by 46 years, in connecting the town and capital, the north and the south. The arrival of the bus was a welcome addition to a public passenger transport system that otherwise relied on the train. Yet, for all that 1924 marked an important development in public transport and 2014 marks ninety years of the Sa Pobla service, buses don't carry the same weight of history as the stories of Mallorca's trains, trams and indeed ships. Buses are less romantic. They are the neglected part of the island's transport history.

There was, however, an "omnibus" service in late nineteenth-century Palma some years before motor buses, those powered by an internal combustion engine, might have been available. The omnibus was a mule-drawn tram, and the service connected city with port. It wasn't until 1958 that Palma actually got a bus service; this was the year when trams were withdrawn.

But to go back further - to the 1830s - it was then that Mallorca began to have anything like regular road-based public transport; the first stagecoach service between Palma and Inca was established in 1837. In order to get anywhere by stagecoach, though, there had to be roads, and in the first half of the nineteenth century, those visitors which Mallorca used to get then were particularly critical of its transport network; roads were poor, very poor or non-existent. New roads did start to appear from 1845, but the road system was never more than rudimentary. It was the realisation at the turn of the twentieth century that tourism offered Mallorca an economic future which helped to bring about some improvement, the Fomento del Turismo (Mallorca Tourist Board), founded in 1905, being instrumental in persuading whoever it could of the need for such improvement.

It was, in no small part, the "excursion" which was the impulse behind the development of new or better roads. The tourist board invested in this infrastructure, as did town halls and private individuals, and they all augmented funds made available by the provincial administration. As an example, the road between Andratx and Estellencs was built with the help of one thousand pesetas from the tourist board and 1350 pesetas from the town halls of Andratx, Estellencs, Esporles and Banyalbufar.

Getting public money for infrastructure projects was far from straightforward. The state generally didn't pay for railways, other than through discretional grants, such as one which helped with the construction of the otherwise privately-funded Sóller train. The state did pay for roads, but getting authorisation could be a tortuous process and was not made any easier by constant political upheaval. One such upheaval led to the first dictatorship, that of Primo de Rivera, but this government proved to be heavy investors in infrastructure. In the year that the Sa Pobla bus service started, the government, noting the representations made to it by the tourist board, gave the go-ahead for a number of road-building projects on Mallorca. They were all projects with tourism in mind and so with tourist excursions in mind. Public transport was secondary. Or at least this is the impression one has.

There doubtless is information about early bus services out there, but if so it's not immediately apparent. What is clear is that by the 1930s bus services and road transport in general were genuine rivals to rail services. But where the bus services went and when they commenced operations is hard to say. 1924, therefore, may have been more significant than simply being ninety years ago. The service to Sa Pobla may well have been, at that time, the furthest by distance.

The projects that Primo de Rivera's government authorised certainly gave Mallorca a more coherent road network than had been the case. One road was that between Fornalutx and Lluc, which was the final part of the mountain road that started in Andratx and ended in Alcúdia. The road from Palma to Manacor and then to Portocristo received special funding for being a "national tourism circuit". And by the end of the 1920s, with the road system in some sort of usable state, the tourist board offered financial support to operators so that they could acquire large-capacity buses. The day of the "excursionista" had truly arrived. On roads built, not for public transport, but for tourists.

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