The battle for Balearic holiday rentals has been well and truly engaged, tourism minister Biel Barceló of Més surrounded by all sides. The hoteliers we have known about for years. Right out in the open now have emerged Podemos and Aptur, the holiday rentals' association. Nothing that either of these have said is fundamentally new, but both are stepping up the pressure on Barceló.
To take Podemos, the parties of government, of which it is one, met this week to consider their "agreements" for government. Tourism was top of the agenda. At least there were some conciliatory noises from Podemos. Having accused the actual government (PSOE and Més) and so therefore Barceló in particular of policy "improvisation" (a euphemism for saying that the government has failed to get on top of tourist "saturation"), there was an acceptance that holiday rentals' legislation is not straightforward. Hallelujah, the penny had dropped. Podemos, seemingly always in a hurry to legislate, would have pressurised Barceló into total improvisation, had holiday rentals' draft legislation been rushed in by the end of August (which had been the original intention).
Fundamental to whatever legislation is enacted is the principle of a ceiling on tourist places. Podemos wants a lowering of numbers; Més, Barceló and PSOE don't see that as plausible. But through legislation they believe they can create a limit to the total number of tourist places. It's going to be fascinating to see how they intend to set this and what the limit might be. Determining it is pretty much anyone's guess.
There are, however, individuals who can assist in removing the guesswork, which is why the government has commissioned two studies. One of these, for indicators of the sustainability of tourism in the Balearics, has lost its chief expert. Dr. Ivan Murray of the University of the Balearic Islands, says that other commitments will not allow him the time to undertake the study. Perhaps so, or maybe he prefers not to be caught in any political crossfire. Whatever the reasons, the government can ill afford to lose good thinkers. There needs to be objectivity rather than political dogma.
Where Aptur is concerned, it has been banging the drum for liberalisation for ages and regularly producing its own studies to back this up. It came out this week with what appeared to be a startling statistic: that the "illegal" supply of holiday accommodation in the Balearics represents over 11% of GDP. It is possible to calculate GDP in different ways and, in the case of tourism, to assign to it a GDP impact that is highly indirect as well as direct, but this was an astonishing claim nonetheless. What was the basis for it? National statistics, funnily enough.
There is confusion regarding the number of properties and of places that represent holiday rentals - legal and illegal - in the Balearics. Aptur did attempt to clear this up. There are almost 46,000 properties, of which under a third are regulated (i.e. registered as legal holiday accommodation). The illegal remainder - 31,500 - provide 126,000 places. The conclusion one draws, therefore, is that there are around 180,000 places - legal and illegal - in the private accommodation sector.
Notwithstanding any more property and places to be added courtesy of Airbnb and others, might this 180,000 be taken as the "ceiling", assuming that they were all legalisable (a big assumption)? It is here that being certain of the statistics becomes tricky. For example, what is the total number of hotel places?
According to the regional government's figures for August 2015, when occupancy is at is highest and so "saturation" is at its greatest, there were 344,445 places in the Balearics: 250,000 of them were in Majorca. On 10 August last year, the total population of the Balearics topped the two million mark for the first time, a figure that will have been repeated this year. However, the regular Balearic population is 1.1 million. Add some 530,000 from Aptur and hotel numbers, and how does one account for the remaining approximately 400,000? They can't all be itinerant workers. One can add numbers for "extra-hotel" accommodation, such as camping in Ibiza, and also numbers for relatives and friends, but the discrepancy still requires some explaining. Therefore, before any ceiling is set, there has to be rigorous certainty that the numbers are accurate and beyond question. At present, there isn't this certainty, and perversely the tourist tax may add to it. Does the system of hotelier self-assessment for making tax returns not carry with it an inherent tendency to under-estimate the number of places? Podemos, for one, thinks that it does.
Aptur's economic argument is on the face of it compelling. The association may also be correct in arguing that private accommodation supply is not the cause of "saturation", and the uncertainty of the statistics as outlined above might reinforce this. However, it is being extremely naive (and simplistic) in brushing off any potential for saturation by saying there need to be improvements to road infrastructure, public transport and water supplies.
The battle for holiday rentals' legislation is fully engaged. Like the battle for the tourist tax and the arguments over "purposes" (remember the old folks' homes?) and distribution of revenue by island, respectively raised by Més and Podemos, it is one that will have many a skirmish along the way.