Friday, October 13, 2017

Everyone Forgets Menorca

In the eighteenth century it was of significant enough strategic importance that it meant a British admiral being executed for failing to "do his utmost" to prevent the French taking it. A three-nation tussle, with Spain the third, ensured that control was periodically passed. Ultimately though, the importance was not so great. The bargaining chip of Menorca was minor compared with the jackpot of Gibraltar. Spain was allowed to have it: Menorca, the minor island.

For a time Menorca had been flagged up on the Mediterranean geopolitical map. With the signing of the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 it obtained a sense of comparative normality, marked with a legacy of European powers' ambitions in the form of infrastructure and borrowed language: English lurks within the Menorquín tongue. Its burden, in a way, lies with toponymy. It has been saddled with the title of being minor. Geographically it obviously is. But culturally it has been made aware of its place. The major island to its south has always dominated.

They say that it is the oldest island in the Balearics, with a geological history starting some 410 million years ago. Some also say it is the oldest in civilisation terms. Maybe, maybe not. Archaeologists and anthropologists will argue that case until the final herd of autochthonous cows is brought home and provides the raw material of its famous cheese, though the cows are arguably less famed than the hens. Menorca's capital has (perhaps) given the world a generic product: mayonnaise. Not even Palma can boast that.

The minor island naturally attracts fewer tourists than the major island. And the stress is very much on the fewer. According to numbers in the Balearic Tourism Agency's yearbook, the total number of tourists in 2016 was 1,440,036; Mallorca received just under eleven million. This total shows a very different profile in terms of country of origin. The Spanish and the British accounted for very similar proportions of the tourist total - both around the 36% mark (523,216 in the case of the British, fewer than a thousand more than the Spanish). British representation in Mallorca was 21%; Spanish only 11%. By way of further comparison, Menorca's total visitor number in 2016 was only 48% of that of Ibiza and Formentera combined.

Menorca doesn't shout its existence or have it shouted on its behalf. There are no salacious headlines. There is no Magalluf or Playa de Palma. There are no tribes of international DJs flocking to its shores as they do to Ibiza's. Menorca is easy to overlook, which will be why many of the 1.44 million like it, one imagines. But being overlooked can mean being forgotten.

Towards the end of January 2012, Spanair ceased operations. By April of that year the president of the island's hoteliers association, Ashome, was holding talks with the Balearic government about the airline's "disappearance". He said at the time that Menorca had been all but cut off from Madrid because of Spanair's collapse. Other airlines were to take up the slack but they were attracted mostly by that 36% of Spanish tourism, mostly all of it crammed into three to four months in the summer. Did the talks with the government achieve anything? Well, no.

In percentage if not real terms, Menorca has higher hotel occupancy than Mallorca in October. The island's small-scale tourism does quite well from its October trade trade. So the collapse of Monarch is going to make a significant difference. The airline was more important to Menorca than it was to Mallorca: the second highest carrier from the UK and the seventh highest in all. Ashome reckons that the collapse will leave an economic hole of at least 800,000 euros, to which some more will be added because hotels haven't yet quantified the losses.

This may not sound like a vast amount, but for the island's October business it is still something of a disaster. An airline going bust isn't a natural phenomenon, but an airline - one as important as Monarch was to Menorca - is a source of general economic well-being. When Mallorca's potato fields are flooded, the calls for aid go out and there are worries about exports and Mallorca's balance of trade. Does Menorca not deserve a slight consideration because of manmade wreckage? All that one hears from the Balearic government is "concern" at the Monarch demise, and this is despite the transport minister, Marc Pons, being Menorcan.

The government hasn't as yet come to a definitive decision on the doubling of the tourist tax in winter. Més in Menorca has called for a freezing because the island can do with all the help it can get in the off-season. There should be a decision to freeze the tax, even if it is just for Menorca alone. Were there to be, then it might demonstrate more than just the easily expressed "concern". Menorca is too easily forgotten.

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