Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Non-Tourism Tax

The vice-president of the Balearics and minister for tourism, innovation and research; the minister for the presidency; the finance minister; the employment, trade and industry minister; the minister for the environment; the director generals for tourism and budgeting; three representatives from both the CCOO and UGT unions; four representatives from CAEB, the Balearic confederation of business associations; two from Pimeb, the federation of small to medium-sized businesses; two from Felib, the federation of local authorities (town halls); two from environmentalists GOB; one from Friends of the Earth; one from the University of the Balearic Islands; one from Arca, the association for the protection of old urban centres; one from the agriculture council; one apiece from the four island councils; one from Palma town hall.

These are the 32 members of the committee for sustainable tourism impetus, the grand title given to the group which decides how tourist tax revenue is to be spent. How many of them are involved in tourism in a direct fashion? Very few. There is tourism minister Biel Barceló, who is the committee's president; Pilar Carbonell, the tourism director general; Inma Benito of the hoteliers via CAEB; Joana Maria Adrover, Palma's tourism councillor. One can make a case for, for instance, Cosme Bonet from the Council of Mallorca, but tourism isn't in his job title; it is buried inside his portfolio for economic affairs.

The representation reflects the pre-determined nature of sustainable tourism impetus; it owes very little - directly - to tourism as such. And the proposals for spending which have been presented to the committee reinforce this. There are 236 in all. Under ten per cent - 22 - fall under the broad "purpose" of tackling tourism seasonality, developing tourist products for the low season and promoting sustainable tourism. You may note something rather odd about this latter category. Is promoting sustainable tourism not the same as sustainable tourism impetus?

We did of course know that the annual plan for sustainable tourism impetus would give priority to water projects, a decision taken by the government (which is of course well represented on the committee). Its motivation, its impetus was the direct consequence of the drought. Needs must. And while there cannot be too much objection to this, it emphasises the unfocused nature of tourist tax revenue spending, if a crisis of Mother Nature can demand funding to compensate for previous failures of investment.

The committee has at its disposal the initial 30 million euros that were collected last year. In order to allocate funding from this pot, it has to whittle down the 236 proposals with a total value of 218.4 million euros. It will have more to play with from this year (at least double), but the comparatively small amounts in overall government budgetary terms raise the question as to why so many people are needed to oversee the spending. What other tax requires such a diverse committee? Spending decisions are otherwise made by smaller committees: parliament's and the government's.

There is much to be said for the committee's inclusiveness, but how consensual can it truly be when there is representation of polar opposites? I previously described it as a camel to decide on a camel of spending, and I see no reason to revise that opinion. The inclusiveness has been defined as participative, but is it little more than a grand PR stunt, one which has spread this participation through a cascade to spending committees set up by individual town halls? Ultimately, the cabinet has to approve the committee's decisions. The cabinet has five members on the committee.

The whole exercise gives the appearance of everyone wanting to play with a new toy, and a not very valuable one at that, given the number of projects. Barceló has said in the past that revenue will not go towards large and more expensive projects. One can perhaps therefore already rule out the purchase - for 12.1 million euros - of the Es Canons finca in Arta, which the town hall there has proposed. There are others which may naturally fall by the wayside because, even given the camel-like nature of the spending "purposes", they struggle to qualify. I give you, for instance, Petra town hall's project for three million euros to be spent on municipal facilities. Or what about Palma's 1.59 million for a cover to be put on one of its swimming pools?

Barceló has made much of the fact that tourists are used to paying taxes. While true, there is nowhere which makes such a fuss about its tax as is occurring in the Balearics. This is because most taxes are spent on general services. When, for instance, Rome introduced its tax, it was totally unabashed in saying that it was to help pay for the likes of cleaning and waste. Catalonia, oddly enough, spends the tax on tourism. In the Balearics, it's less than ten per cent. If that.

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