Saturday, June 11, 2016

Monsters Of The Seas

Harmony Of The Seas will bring more than 100,000 passengers to Palma over the course of the summer and into autumn. On Monday the world's largest cruise ship will arrive. Its maiden voyage from Barcelona has had among its passengers some 2,500 journalists, travel agents and others from the tourism industry. You could say that Royal Caribbean has pushed the boat out in terms of attracting publicity.

When the ship arrived in Barcelona prior to its voyage, there was a protest. It wasn't large, only some 150 people. It wasn't, said the organisers, against tourists but against the tourism industry. Nevertheless, coaches taking passengers to cruise ships in the port were jeered. The protest was motivated by what is now becoming a familiar theme - the mass tourism of these monsters of the seas is not sustainable for the destinations that are visited.

The Balearic tourism minister, Biel Barceló, wishes to set a limit on the number of ships on any given day. He accepts that the number of four is subjective. He might also accept that the citing of the eight ships on one day in early May did not involve 22,000 passengers traipsing through the streets of the city. Three of the ships were home base. People were getting on, people were getting off and being taken to the airport. As ever, you can use numbers to suit an argument.

And the argument is being had over and over. The mantra of this summer is overcrowding. Competitor destination instability, huge supply of accommodation, colossal cruise ships. This is mass on a scale that not even Mallorca has previously experienced.

How does the government deal with it? Barceló suggests that there will be regulation in order to limit the number of ships, the cruise operators having given the suggestion of a limit short shrift. Spreading the load across the course of a week rather than loading influx on to one or two days sounds like common sense. It is also in keeping with Barceló's wish to spread the total tourism load over more months than is the case. It's easier said than done though, and he knows it.

And members of the government doesn't necessarily agree. President Armengol has said this week that she is against limits being placed on the number of tourist arrivals. She wants to spread the tourism load not by smoothing out the number which currently comes but by adding to it in the lower months of the year, thereby assisting with creating greater employment. Barceló has flip-flopped on the question of a limit. He has said that it would be difficult but he also intimated that he would like there to be one.

Barceló is not wrong in believing it would be difficult. The cruise-shop story is something of a sideshow. It only affects Palma. The mass is shortlived, even if it can be repeated almost daily. By far the most important contributory factor to the Barceló overcrowding theme is holiday accommodation. As he struggles to find "consensus" for planned legislation, that has been made ever more difficult by Brussels and the Spanish Supreme Court.

The European Commission issued a report earlier this week in which it said that bans on the so-called collaborative (sharing) economy services such as Airbnb and also Uber (for quasi-taxi service) should only be the "last resort". The Commission wants common rules to apply and has distinguished between individuals who rent out their properties on an occasional basis and operators who rent out in a "professional capacity". For the latter, it is suggesting that there should be a "threshold" on the level of activity but it is certainly not proposing onerous restrictions: quite the opposite.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has this week ruled against the regional government in Madrid. It had decreed that a holiday rental via, for example, an Airbnb-promoted property must have a minimum stay of five days. The court has ruled that this is a restriction of competition. It might not appear to have too much relevance for Mallorca, given that tourists typically stay for longer than five days, but it does relevance insofar as the Supreme Court is laying down principles of competition, and they are not so far removed from those of the European Commission.

Against the background of all this has come a further report this week. It states that the availability of holiday rental in Spain as a whole now exceeds the supply of "regulated" accommodation (hotels, for instance) for the first time. It is said that there are 2.7 million holiday rental places as opposed to 2.4 million regulated places, and it is most unlikely that this trend will be reversed. In addition to Brussels and the Supreme Court, there is the National Competition Commission in Madrid: it is against bans on Airbnb and others.

There is a perfect storm that is creating overcrowding in Mallorca. The weather will be calm on Monday, but might a different storm brew? The protest in Barcelona will surely not have gone unnoticed.

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