Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chain Reaction: Bankruptcies and non-payments

Spain's economic woes are receiving plenty of airing, but what about what is happening on the ground? The crisis is such that one has an impression that much economic life in Mallorca is all but grinding to a halt, brought about by a lack of credit, non-payments, negative cash flows and bankruptcies.

Businesses in Mallorca are caught in the chain reaction of the absence of liquidity in both the private and public sectors. Of the latter, those affected are suppliers to town halls and other governmental bodies and those linked directly to government agencies. Take chemists, for instance. Some had started posting notices to the effect that they could not supply prescriptions through the local health system because the health agency, IB-Salut, was not paying them. IB-Salut, and its problems have been known about for months, is another division of regional government, like the tourism ministry, so in debt that the government is having to bail it out. The government has at least sought to reassure the chemists and patients of the health system that prescriptions will be guaranteed.

The town halls, notorious as bad payers even in the good times, can typically take six months or more in honouring invoices. The Council of Mallorca has had to reach into its pockets to give the town halls some cash that they cannot otherwise raise because central government has imposed restrictions on their capacity to borrow and thus get into further debt.

It's not all bad news. One town hall, Alcúdia's, is being reimbursed by central government, following a protracted legal battle to get back IVA which was wrongly charged to its services agency, EMSA. The 600,000 or so euros that the court has so far agreed to could rise. In the meantime, the repaid IVA will help to clear debts the town hall has to suppliers.

If only all town halls or businesses could benefit from such windfalls. If only, especially for smaller businesses, there were mechanisms to prevent their bankruptcy when faced with what is an increasingly common occurrence, the protection of voluntary administration by larger businesses which then do not make payments while they buy time to try and sort out their affairs. For the smaller businesses, their suppliers, there simply isn't the time. And so they try and come to agreements with their own creditors or go bust and then find themselves blacklisted by banks.

The main business sectors affected have been construction, hostelry (in its widest sense, to include hotels as well as restaurants etc.) and transport. And there have been some big names that have got into difficulty. One of these is Marsans, formerly the ultimate owner, through the hotel chain Hotetur, of the Bellevue complex in Alcúdia. The sale of Marsans' businesses earlier this year looked as though it might have brought salvation. The problems have persisted, though the new owners seem to have arrived at a solution that will see creditors paid and so stave off a court order that was to place Hotetur in voluntary administration, one that creditors had not sought when urging the court to force bankruptcy in pursuit of the money they were owed.

Even if a solution is found, there is also the effect on local business confidence to be taken into account. In the case of the huge Bellevue, any uncertainty sets the rumour mill ablaze, one not helped by staff being paid only 70% of their October salaries (as was being reported in the middle of November). Just the threat of administration for a major employer and purchaser of services, to say nothing of supplier of tourists, is sufficient to drain even more life from the sick body of the local economy.

Lawyers have expressed concerns about the bankruptcy law which came into force in 2004. It was one, they say, drafted at a time when things were good and when bankruptcy was relatively uncommon. Since 2008 the trickle has become an avalanche. While voluntary status has its benefits for the company facing bankruptcy, it does little for suppliers.

One lawyer has described the system as an abuse of the law, and the overwhelming majority of companies that enter administration subsequently fail, some of them emerging later under new names with new owners, for example, a son or daughter, thus getting around the banks' blacklist. It has been said that the law makes it easy to simply close and disappear but also to get re-established in a different guise. And then perhaps to set the same chain reaction in motion, of smaller businesses, the suppliers, being left unpaid and ending up going to the wall all over again.

The chain reaction is likely to continue, likely to get worse. You can also describe the situation as a vicious circle, and the question is when or if the circle will be broken, because there is no sign of it being so.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Index for November 2010
Bankruptcies, non-payments and - 30 November 2010
Capdepera, new agriculture and - 13 November 2010
Catalonian independence, Joan Laporta and - 16 November 2010
Celebrity advertising, Rafael Nadal and - 3 November 2010
Chinese tourists - 24 November 2010, 25 November 2010
Christmas, spending and - 15 November 2010
Dunes in Can Picafort and Playa de Muro - 2 November 2010
Ensaïmada - 8 November 2010
Euro, Europeanism and Ireland - 23 November 2010
Facebook and tourism promotion - 4 November 2010
German versus British tourism - 9 November 2010
Golfers in Balearics, low number of - 27 November 2010
Graffiti artists face prison sentences - 28 November 2010
Guardia Civil and Catalan incidents - 18 November 2010
Hotel over-supply - 1 November 2010
Hunting - 11 November 2010
Inca hospital and patient information - 12 November 2010
Loneliness, expatriate - 5 November 2010
Mallorca identity and resorts - 22 November 2010
Muro employees paying salaries back - 25 November 2010
Playa de Palma regeneration - 20 November 2010
Pollensa and local tourism - 21 November 2010
Pope and Spanish secularism - 7 November 2010
Pumpkin, Muro fair and - 14 November 2010
RNE3, Siglo 21 and - 26 November 2010
Royal wedding (Kate and William) - 19 November 2010
Surnames and spelling rules, new - 6 November 2010
Tourism secretary-of-state and ministers - 29 November 2010
TripAdvisor and review sites - 10 November 2010
Underage drinking in Spain - 17 November 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

Right People, Right Jobs: Tourism ministers

Some heavyweight names have been calling on the Spanish Government to establish a separate tourism ministry and minister, which would mean it taking a U-turn and admitting that a realignment of ministerial posts effected in July was a mistake.

These names include Mallorcan hotel and tourism companies, the former tourism secretary-of-state Joan Mesquida and the president of the Balearics Francesc Antich.

The Mallorcan companies (Globalia, Riu and Sol Melià) made their call during a high-level pow-wow with President Zapatero and his cabinet, designed to bring the great and good of the business world to the talking table and find solutions to Spain's economic mess. Mesquida made his call some days before, and Antich added weight to the companies' demand, reinforcing the view of all parties that, as tourism amounts to such a significant part of GDP (12%), a minister is needed.

The decision in July to in effect downgrade tourism by getting rid of the position of secretary-of-state and merging it with the portfolio for national commerce seemed at the time somewhat perverse, but it was all part of a governmental drive to cut costs. It was one that was mirrored in the Balearics where, in a similar cost-saving drive, the tourism ministry was merged with employment.

At national level, tourism has been and is a part of a super ministry that includes also industry and commerce. The position of secretary-of-state for tourism only, scrapped in July, was only some two years old. It was one formed, as one commentator has put it, in the "days of wine and roses", alongside other new ministerial appointments. Its being dispensed with was far from the tourism snub that it was portrayed and is still being portrayed.

Nevertheless, given that tourism amounts to a sizable chunk of national GDP (and you can always find figures which suggest it is not as high), it might seem sensible to have a dedicated secretary-of-state, especially as tourism is an industry that, one might hope, would be central to economic recovery and also as Spain's tourism faces the kinds of competitive threats that it does. Sensible. But would it be necessary? Mesquida is still part of the same super ministry, and the very fact that tourism is singled out as one element of the ministerial triad along with industry and commerce gives it the kudos it deserves.

The discussion as to the importance of the post has tended to overlook what has happened since Mesquida was made its first appointee. And to overlook Mesquida's credentials for the post. Prior to it he was the director-general for the Guardia Civil and then the newly combined National Police and Guardia. Before this he was the Balearics' treasury minister.

In his time as secretary-of-state, he oversaw the so-called "Q" quality campaign for restaurants and other establishments, one that cost half a million euros and one that has subsequently been allowed to fade away. He also oversaw the launch of the worldwide and bizarrely sloganed "I Need Spain" campaign earlier this year, at the same time defending his government's decision to impose an increase in IVA on tourist business (his previous treasury experience coming to the fore no doubt).

His appointment in 2008 was loudly praised in Mallorca. As you might expect for someone who is a native of Felanitx. Antich said at the time that here was someone who knew well the needs of the Balearics and who would make the execution of certain projects, notably the regeneration of Playa de Palma, that much easier. So what happened with this, then?

If you track back further to Mesquida's time at the treasury, it was he, together with the then tourism minister Celestí Alomar, who came up with the ill-fated eco-tax. Alomar bore the brunt of the tourism industry's opprobrium, but the tax was, after all, a fiscal measure.

Mesquida was unlucky in that his appointment coincided with the crisis, but the point is that having the right person in the job, however it is titled and whatever portfolios it combines, matters as much as the position in the governmental hierarchy. And this brings us to what has occurred in the Balearics.

For President Antich to be pressing for a national tourism minister seems a bit rich when it was he who merged the local tourism minister's responsibilities with employment. The economic importance of tourism is far greater in the Balearics (80% of GDP is what is normally quoted). And just as important is having the right minister. So what has happened? Under separate Antich administrations, there have been Alomar, vilified by the very industry he was supposed to represent, and since 2007 a series of Unió Mallorquina politicians who became tourism minister thanks to the UM having been divvied up responsibility for tourism under the spoils of coalition.

One after the other they came and went - Buils for exceeding his powers, Nadal and Flaquer for being implicated in scandal. And then came the short-lived Ferrer, appointed partly because it was Buggins's turn and partly because he was the mayor of a town with a high level of tourism. One also, Alcúdia, that has been ravaged by all-inclusives, over which he as mayor and as tourism minister had not the slightest power to prevent.

What matters is the right person for the job and that politicians "get it" where tourism is concerned. With this in mind, let's leave the last words to that gift which keeps on giving, the Partido Popular's José Ramón Bauzá. The Balearics face tourism attack from, he says, Turkey, eastern Europe and ... and the Baltics. The Baltics? Maybe he has indeed been influenced by his mate Delgado in Calvia. The stag and hen-do tourism of Tallinn is doing damage to that of Magalluf. Can't think what else he can be talking about.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Notorious: Graffiti and urban youth culture

If you type "graffiti Mallorca" into Google, the second entry that comes up is for "imágenes de graffiti mallorca" (you do incidentally have to use the double-l version, as it won't work in the same way with the "j"). Click on the link for images and then scroll down to around the fourteenth line of photos and there is one of mine, a photo that is and not, I hasten to add, the graffiti. It's not graffiti of an artistic style; it is just written. It is "Mallorca tiene un secreto", variations on which in both Spanish and English have cropped up all over the place.

I was interested in going hunting for information on graffiti in Mallorca, because two graffiti artists are facing prison sentences of three years each for having put their work onto buildings in Palma as well as on trains that run to Inca and Manacor. For anyone familiar with urban street art in London and pretty much any other city or town in the UK, the graffiti is nothing unusual, but the growth of such art in Mallorca has prompted the police to take action against the two, identified, as with other graffiti artists, by their "tags" or signatures, nearly always seemingly obscure combinations of letters. Not that they are always obscure. "WHERE" is a tag of one artist involved with a graffiti project in Porto Cristo. And you can see the work on YouTube.

It isn't necessarily difficult to find out who the perpetrators are. The internet is full of not just Facebook artists but also blogs and websites to which they contribute or run. One such, and he is very much more on the "established" end of the scene is Torrelló aka Gun_star who has a site which when you go to it tells you that this is his "fucking website", "wankas". The site also has a poster for an event at Son Amar on 11 December - "Big Bang", one element of which is a percussion spectacular which features one ... Gun_star.

The threat of prison for the Palma artists is not the first occasion on which the police have moved against graffiti-ists. A few months ago the mayor of Inca initiated action against some school kids who had been defacing walls on their way home from school, initially suggesting that the parents be fined. There is a difference between some scrawling on walls and some street art, but many would argue that there is no difference - both are acts of vandalism.

A curious aspect of street or urban art, call it as you will, is how one reconciles the very nature of the phenomenon - the daubing of public buildings and transport - and the degree to which it is somehow sanctioned. Continue with the search in Google, and you will find references to courses in graffiti art. Workshops are organized during annual fiestas. These take place in Pollensa, for example, and its port is a place that has been blighted, some might say, by an outbreak of graffiti, some of it clearly "tagged".

A further curiosity, for those inclined to adopt a blinkered and over-romantic view of Mallorca, is how such seemingly anti-social activity can occur on the "beautiful" island. It isn't curious at all. Much in the same way as alcohol and drugs are part of Mallorcan youth culture, so also is graffiti. This culture is, furthermore, part of a standardisation across cultures and in which there is also the influence of music. I came across Gun_star via a website hhgroups.com ("hh" standing for hip hop). Graffiti has always been a core element of hip hop, and the website says that "el hip hop es nuestra cultura" (our culture). The YouTube video for the Porto Cristo "project" has a hip-hop soundtrack to accompany it.

The point about much urban art is that it is astonishing in its scale and audacity. Whether it's right is another matter. But graffiti-ists thrive on the thrill of notoriety; it's all wrapped up with a culture that could have spawned a rap artist who became notorious partly because of his name - The Notorious B.I.G. A three-year stretch might not be what the graffiti-ists of Palma might have wanted, but by leaving their calling cards, it was only a matter of time if the police were minded to pull them in. The stretch might only help in reinforcing the image and the myth and might even propel them into the "established" graffiti world of a Banksy where there is real fame to be cultivated and money to be made.

Criminal damage, though, is criminal damage. Reconciling the art, and its promotion, and the vandalism will remain an issue, however. And as far Mallorca and its secret is concerned, getting to the bottom of the enigma of some graffiti is another matter. I'm still no nearer knowing what it all means and what the secret is.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Crazy Golf: Too many courses in the Balearics?

Where do you go in Spain to have a quiet round of golf? The Balearics. Whole courses uninhabited by the one thing they should be inhabited with - golfers. Golfers of a local variety that is. Ignoring overseas players, a survey by the information company 11811, reveals that there are fewer registered golfers on the islands, relative to the number of courses, than any other region of Spain. The finding is slightly misleading as a further discovery of the survey is that the number of registered players per head of population is the sixth highest in the country. But what really gives the game away regarding how unused courses are in the Balearics is the fact that there are more courses for each and every resident of the islands than anywhere else in Spain.

The revelation as to the low numbers of golfers is nothing new. In April 2008 a different survey came to the same conclusion. Golf, far from booming, seems to be standing still. Is the relative unpopularity of the sport among residents, however, important in the wider debate surrounding golf courses? Local golfers are really only a sub-plot to the main story of golf tourism, but the fact that they are spread so thinly across the islands' courses - 387 registered players per course - represents a weakness in the "home" market and raises the question as to whether Mallorca and the islands need more courses.

A year on from that previous survey, the Balearics business confederation (CAEB) issued its own report which stated that as many as five more courses were needed in Mallorca alone. These were courses, it said, that were necessary for the development of golf tourism, and it received support from the then tourism minister Miguel Nadal. The support was not unexpected; Nadal's party, the Unió Mallorquina, has been cast, alongside the Partido Popular, as the devil of golf expansion by both the left and environmentalists.

The arguments advanced by CAEB for the islands as a whole are those echoed in the endless row regarding the development of the Muro golf course. These are well-rehearsed arguments: higher-value tourists; diversification of the tourism offer; a means of countering tourism seasonality.

The problem with these arguments is that they are just that - arguments. What invariably seems to be lacking is evidence as to what more courses would actually mean in terms of increased tourism. One would hope that a business confederation could be capable of presenting a sound business case in favour of more courses, just as one would hope that the Muro course developers could do the same. If so, then where is it?

Beyond the claims and the prospects of some employment being created, the pro-golf lobby has failed to win hearts and minds by pointing to serious numbers. Were it to, then it might do better in the propaganda war with the anti-golf lobby, bolstered recently by a report from an international organisation (the Ramsar Convention on wetlands) which recommends that Muro should definitely be scrapped because of the environmental impact. Furthermore, it is the no-to-golf side which attempts to come up with figures that dispute the yes-to-golf's arguments.

In September the environmental watchdog GOB produced what it reckoned was proof that golf does nothing to increase low-season tourism. Based on hotel occupancy figures, it argued that were there golf tourism demand in the likes of Alcúdia or Pollensa then hotels would be open, which with some exceptions they are not. It wasn't proof because GOB had overlooked non-hotel accommodation and figures from November to March, but it did nevertheless suggest that the quieter months of April and October did not show any real benefit from golf tourism.

Though tenuous, GOB's findings do deserve some attention, while more rigorous research for the off season would not go amiss. And to these findings, we have to take into account what appears to be the lack of a bedrock of support for golf in the local market. One wonders to what degree, if at all, the apparent unpopularity of golf is a reflection of the environmental case. It would also be interesting to know how many of the registered golfers in the Balearics are foreign residents.

What do local people think about the development of new courses? Are they ever asked? In Muro a flavour of opinion was evident in October last year when townspeople demonstrated against the possible demolition of the bungalows in Ses Casetes des Capellans. One prominent banner read: "A golf course is for the rich. Capellans is worth much more".

Local demand for golf is only part of the equation, but it cannot be overlooked. If one takes Muro's course, what might this demand be? Excluding the population of neighbouring Alcúdia, where a course exists, the combined population of Muro and its other neighbours - Santa Margalida, Sa Pobla, Búger and Llubi (where there are no courses) - is around 35,000. Extrapolating from the figures in the latest survey, this would mean a course that might attract 260 registered players. 260 across five towns. It doesn't sound like much of an argument for building a golf course. You would need an awful lot of golfing tourists to make it work. An awful lot of golfers that no one seems able to put a figure to. Crazy.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Friday, November 26, 2010

On My Radio: Siglo 21 and RNE3

"Hola. ¿Qué pasa?"

At midday, six days a week, these are the words which greet you to a radio show. It's called "Siglo Veintiuno". Twenty-first century. The words are spoken by Tomás Fernando Flores. The show is on the national station RNE3. Flores, to use an overworked word, is something of a doyen of the Spanish music scene, both on radio and in the press.

His show, one that specializes in electronic, experimental and dance music, is extraordinary in the extent to which it is at the cutting-edge and extraordinary in that it should go out at the time that it does. But it is not so extraordinary when you consider just how unusual, how eclectic and avant-garde and how downright different RNE3 is. There is little to which it can be compared. The BBC's 6 Music maybe, but that is on the margins of the BBC's network; it isn't mainstream. RNE3 is the main music channel on Spain's national broadcast network, but its output is, for the most part, anything but in the mainstream.

On RNE3 you can hear just about any form of music you care to think of that conforms to "popular" music in its broadest sense. The big exception is classical; RNE has its own classical station. Otherwise the music ranges from rock to jazz to flamenco to world to hip-hop to folk to experimental and dance. And there is even some pop. Nothing that unusual in this coverage, but RNE3's style is far from usual.

Flores is an institution. Fifty next year, he has been broadcasting with RNE3 since the early '80s. His style, like others on the station, is reserved mixed with a certain authority. There is little that is flippant about his presenting. He's deadly serious about his music, and it is the music that matters. One of the most peculiar aspects of his show is that it airs at midday. It is the sort of programme you might expect to occupy a late-evening slot on Radio 1. But this peculiarity tells you all you need to know about RNE3. It doesn't compromise. Flores' natural audience might not be listening at midday, mainly because it's not awake, but it can of course catch up via internet playback.

I caught the RNE3 bug some years ago. One thing that did it was tuning in at eight in the morning and sitting captivated by a track that went on for a good ten minutes. It was electronic, ethereal with a children's choir. The announcer said it was by Catherine Denby, but I have never managed to find any mention of her subsequently, just emphasizing how left-field RNE3 can be. I hadn't misheard the name, though mishearing is not difficult. Spanish pronunciations can confuse. Who were "Ire" I once wondered, before realizing they were the French electronic dance duo Air. The former Stone Roses' singer Ian Brown is no longer Ian on RNE3. He is Iron Brown.

But that ethereal track at the eight in the morning, soothing though it was, was not exactly the sort of thing you'd find Chris Moyles or Chris Evans playing. It is the very weirdness of RNE3 that says much about how it, as a national broadcaster, differs from the BBC. Ratings seem immaterial. If they were, then Flores would be shunted off to midnight, and midday would be packed with something altogether more frothy and lightweight. The station doesn't seem to wish to compete with all the more "poppy" stations or overtly dance stations, such as Flaix, that are available. One wonders if there isn't perhaps a lesson for the BBC in this, it being that the Spanish take their culture seriously to the point of being almost perverse.

Flores though is not some remote, professorial type. He has been a DJ for instance at the Benicàssim music festival that is staged annually north of Valencia. The other day he was doing his bit for next year's festival in 2011, including having Bobby Gillespie, sounding as off his head as he looks on stage, reciting the "Siglo Veintiuno" slogan. Primal Scream will be headlining at Benicàssim along with the Arctic Monkeys and The Strokes this coming July. (A note here perhaps for Mallorca. Why is it that Benicàssim, a town of some 18,000 - the rough equivalent in population terms therefore of the likes of Alcúdia or Pollensa - can stage such a festival, given also that it is some 90 kilometres from the nearest airport?)

I don't know if RNE3 or indeed Flores have ever won an international award. Looking down the list of gold, silver and bronze winners at the 2010 New York Festivals radio programme and promotion awards, there was no mention. But mentions would be deserved.

"Hola. ¿Qué pasa?" Listening to the radio. "Siglo 21".

* RNE3 is on 92.3FM (south of the island) and 97.4FM (north). Also at http://www.rtve.es/radio/radio3/. For "Siglo 21", click "Electrónica" for more information, to download or to play back.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

We Want Our Money Back: Town hall employees in Muro

Along the canal in Playa de Muro that connects Albufera with the sea are moorings for boats. These are not grand boats; they are mainly small fishing craft. The owners have been expressing their concerns regarding security. And have been doing so for nigh on two years. They have wanted a security barrier to be installed, but have also wanted greater vigilance from the police.

The local police in Muro have not had an easy relationship with the town hall. In March there were complaints that they had to go out on patrol wearing their own clothes because the town hall was only issuing uniforms as and when they were necessary. The mayor added that the town hall was aware that there was some moonlighting where uniforms were concerned; boots being worn by some local police when they went hunting.

Prior to the complaints about uniforms, it was revealed that Muro town hall was one of the island's authorities that had overseen a massive increase in its spending on personnel since the turn of the century. A 152% rise on town hall employees, which include the police. And this rise was set to become higher because of pay increases for staff from the start of this year.

The mayor, Martí Fornés, sought opinion from the regional government as to these increases which had been previously approved by all parties at the town hall, including that of the mayor before he assumed office. This all-party agreement was emphasised by the spokesperson for the opposition socialist group who admitted that the increases of around 5% were illegal in that they contravened a law which was allowing for only 0.3% increases. He pointed out that everyone knew they were illegal, but still approved them for employees who were in any event earning less than their counterparts in neighbouring towns.

The government ruled unsurprisingly that the increases were indeed illegal and so, commencing with salary payments from October, insisted that the money be paid back, be it through monthly deductions, a one-off deduction or through the withholding of at least part of the Christmas bonus. Also unsurprisingly the news didn't go down well with the opposition and especially the employees.

To make the point that there was dissatisfaction, town hall employees staged a protest during Muro's fair over the weekend of 13-14 November, confronting the mayor with their grievance. The town hall has now announced that it will look at disciplinary procedures against three employees for abandoning their places of work in order to make the protest.

That no one appears to dispute the illegality of the salary increases might make you wonder what the fuss is about. But try telling that to the employees, faced with lower pay packets in the lead-up to Christmas. It doesn't do much for morale, and this leads us back to the police and their uniforms and to the boats and their security as well as to security in a resort with high numbers of unattended holiday and second homes and a town which has suffered like others from the noise and mess of the botellón.

Pay increases may have to be in line with government stipulations, but a wider issue lies with priorities in public spending. Sure it's a different budget, but was it wholly appropriate that in March Muro town hall should have spent getting on for half a million euros in purchasing the town's bullring from Grup Balaña? This stages one fight a year. The town hall has spoken about other events being held, but what are they and who would be paying for them?

The town hall was also faced, having acquired the bullring, with spending more in order that it should meet health and safety requirements so that the bullfight could be put on. Heritage is one thing, but when money is tight it might be argued that employees such as the police deserve greater priority, to which one might add the contractor for rubbish collection which, as it was being reported in early October, had outstanding invoices for the first eight months of the year.

Town hall finances, not just in Muro, are in a mess. Partly this may be due to staffing levels; Muro's 152% increase in personnel spend over the last decade is not solely down to salaries. But as important is that what money there is is spent wisely. Yes, Muro's employees have been paid money they shouldn't have been, but you can understand their being upset and their being prepared to voice this. Disciplining them is not the answer, as the bigger question should relate to sound financial management and not morale-sapping personnel management.

Chinese Tourism
My thanks to Alastair for pointing out that I missed a bit of a trick where Chinese tourists were concerned, namely ... gambling. I should have been more on the ball, roulette or otherwise, in recalling that some while ago there was discussion in Alcúdia as to what Chinese workers do with themselves when not working. The answer was, of course, that they are pumping coins into slot machines. With this in mind, therefore, the opening of several more casinos in Mallorca is what is needed to secure a Chinese tourism future. Or else, they'll all be off to the multi-casino, multi-theme park "Gran Scala" near Zaragoza.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chinese Water Torture: Tourism from China

In Palma there is an undistinguished shop which has in its name the words "El" and "Corte". Not the grand department store of El Corte Inglés, but a Chinese bazaar called El Corte Chino. Had a bit of shopping been on the agenda when Xi Jinping came a-visiting, the former would have been on the itinerary and not the bazaar. One imagines that the vice-president of China has already got shedloads of plastic flowers and tea-towels back home in the official residence.

Xi has been in town, Palma that is. Suddenly Mallorca has become the voguish destination for world leaders and their wives, Mrs. Obama having stopped over for a spot of lunch with the royals back in the summer. Of the two, Xi is considerably more important. For one very good reason: all his fellow countrymen and women. Those on whom Mallorca has its eye as potential tourists and as potential purchasers of local wine and olive oil.

In March this year the first international congress looking at Chinese-Spanish tourism took place in Palma. The background to this was the Chinese Government's intention, by 2015, to be overseeing the despatch of some 83 million Chinese tourists overseas. Mallorca and Spain are rather keen on getting some of the action. The congress looked not just at the bigger picture of all those millions hacking through Palma airport but also at the detail as to how to treat Chinese guests - what they eat, what they want to see and what they buy. And one presumes that these needs and wants extend beyond a Chinese restaurant all-you-can-scoff-for-eight-euros "buffet libre" and being unable to go shopping at a Chinese bazaar hypermarket because it's been declared to be illegal.

As importantly, the congress sought to address how to eliminate mental barriers that might impede what otherwise might be a pot of tourism gold at the Far-Eastern end of the rainbow. And these are not just barriers which might exist in the minds of Mallorcans or Spaniards. Spain is still a country largely unknown to most Chinese; there's a lot of education to be undertaken before they start flocking in. It helps of course if promotion is done with Chinese lettering, though not if it means paying a grand per letter in order to translate the name of the one-time Balearics tourism promotion agency - IBATUR.

But were all these Chinese to one day turn up, what would they want from Mallorca? Local nosebag? Sun and beach? Neither would be at the top of the Chinese tourist's wish-list. He or she is not a great experimenter when it comes to cuisine, so you can forget much of that gastronomy malarkey, but be grateful that Sa Pobla is expanding its rice output and that Mallorca has its own line in noodles.

As for sun and beach, well the Chinese might like to look at the sea, rather like British pensioners lined up on benches or in deckchairs in Eastbourne and staring out at the Channel, but they're not wildly keen on all the tanning. White skin is revered, insofar as the Chinese have white skin. The sight of a German roasting into an ever darker shade of mahogany or a Brit radiating like the stop signal on a traffic light suggests that special enclaves would need to be found for the Chinese to prevent them from being offended by all the off-white bodies.

At the risk of racial stereotyping, when a group of Chinese "lads" were on the local beach a couple of summers ago, I found it distinctly odd. I mean, you just don't see the Chinese on the beach. The sea, for them, seems to be like some sort of Chinese water torture, especially if they are confronted by factored-up sun worshippers.

There are further problems for Mallorca, one a different form of water torture to be overcome - that of cold water, which the Chinese don't drink. Then there is the fact that earlier this year we discovered that the Chinese rate Greece as their favourite tourist destination. Not, one presumes, because they head off for industrial quantities of industrial alcohol in Zante but because they are all traipsing around the Acropolis. Which means, therefore, culture. Ah yes, culture. Mallorcan culture. Of which there is so much. There is some but it's not on the scale of a Spanish city such as Santiago de Compostela, earmarked a few years ago as a "recommended" destination for the Chinese tourist and something which puts into context a scheme in Torremolinos to organise Chinese tourist guides. Torremolinos!?

So when, or rather if the Chinese descend on Mallorca, it will be to Bellver Castle or the Tramuntana mountains that they ascend. Which is probably as well in the case of the mountains, for there is one further thing about the Chinese. The smoking. That which they wouldn't be able to do in bars or restaurants.

Xi's visit will doubtless be spun as being deeply significant in terms of fostering the development of Chinese tourism to Mallorca, but if what appeals to the Chinese are culture and scenery, there are, unfortunately for Mallorca, any number of places with far more culture and far more scenery. 83 million? Probably have to settle for 83.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Banking Mad: We're Europeans Whether We Like It Or Not

Some time back in the nineties, I think it was 1995, I was invited to meet a founder of an organisation that was to be some sort of lobby group for European integration. He was looking for someone to be its director of communications. We met in a London club, and I suppose I poured out my good "European" credentials.

I never heard again from him and nor did I ever hear more of the organisation. Perhaps it was all a pipe dream, like much of the European "project" - as it is turning out.

You can get things wrong. You are permitted to change your mind. Even in the mid-90s when the project seemed as exciting as it was, there was a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. How was it all supposed to work?

Around the same time, I met Gerry Malone, the former Conservative MP. It was to discuss a publication in which he had an interest along with Andrew Neil. Once more nothing came of it, but perhaps because of bigger fish to fry - Neil became editor of "The European" and Malone went on to succeed him before the newspaper (by then in magazine format) folded at the end of 1998.

Wind forward to around 2005, and I am inventing the idea of a story that has yet to be written but which is threatening to be played out. The story's premise was the descent of Europe into war, not a military war but an economic war, the background being the collapse of the economic system. I claim no foresight, it just seemed like a good and imaginary apocalyptic vision to provide the context for a story.

All these things were coming to mind as I listened to Andrew Neil giving Ken Clarke the run around on radio the other evening. Clarke was that rare beast, a Conservative beast of a politician for whom I have had any time. Was. He has come to sound like a parody of himself, not just in how he speaks but also what he speaks. The sheer arrogant insouciance was staggering. At one point, as Ken droned on, I'm sure I detected the sound of someone sarcastically snoring, and it presumably wasn't the presenter John Pienaar.

This was a discussion about the state of the Euro, the EU and Ireland and its descent into what is now also political turmoil. It's not an issue about the Euro, so Clarke was saying, but one of out-of-control bankers. Right but also wrong as the Euro was and is the currency.

Sitting in Spain listening to this, you know full well what's coming next. The fire storm is heading southwards. Perhaps. The Spanish economy slipping back again, more austerity measures to be handed out in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable. Zapatero might yet face his own early elections when the flames start to encroach upon Madrid's city limits.

You are permitted to admit that you were wrong, to admit that you were sold a pup. Or this at least is how the "project" is panning out: the with-hindsight pretentious notion of being "Europeans", an entirely specious concept that sought to graft a nationhood onto enduring diversity. Why did "The European" fail? Apart from the original idea of the highly pro-European Robert Maxwell being "barking mad" according to Gerry Malone, it was because it was - as has been said elsewhere - a paper for a nation which didn't exist; which doesn't exist and is never likely to exist.

The flaws with the Euro are not for me to go into, but fundamentally a currency unsupported by a harmonised political structure and harmonised institutions and financial and fiscal policies was always going to be a tough call. It was a massive experiment which may now be unravelling along with the political conceit that brought it about but at the same time the laudable political motives behind integration. What was created in order to overcome division is generating it - economic war but also sociopolitical war, one predicated on migration that has inflamed old prejudices and, more seriously, precisely the extremism that it was meant to stamp out.

We know the arguments in favour. Of course we do. Don't we? And one is to avoid economic war, which is why Ireland will not be allowed to go to the wall, which is only right. But how often can this be repeated and remain politically acceptable if other countries are to be bailed out? Who next? Well, we know who next. Or at least we think we do. An unsettling idea is that one can sit in Spain and listen to Andrew Neil versus Ken Clarke, be uncomfortable with views that have shifted a considerable distance from the days of a meeting in a London club and be further uncomfortable with the ease of movement that brought one to be sitting in Spain. It's simply not good enough to rail against the Euro and the European Union, because to do so would be hypocritical.

But, but, but ... . The dire predictions regarding Spain may not be accurate. For starters, the Spanish banking system is not in the same mess as Ireland's. This stems from much tighter regulation on lending and the insistence on banks' securing debts laid down by the Bank of Spain. Yes, there has been much cash flowing into what are now all but worthless property development and speculation, but the level of lending is not at Irish levels.

So maybe Ken Clarke is right. It isn't about the Euro, but just about banks. Perhaps so, but sentiment goes a long way, and the sentiment against the Euro and countries perceived as weak within the monetary system goes as far, which is why worries about Spain will remain and why the Euro and the whole European project will attract such anxiety.

But hold on, what would be the alternative? Something potentially altogether worse. To borrow from an Irishman, things may be falling apart, the centre may not be holding, but I, for one, hope to God it does hold. We are Europeans whether we like it or not.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Anywhere In The World: Mallorcan identity

The failure of the Playa de Palma regeneration plan has brought with it much soul-searching and navel-gazing. One of those who has been scrutinising her belly has been the president of the Council of Mallorca, Francina Armengol. While she believed that much of the plan was "excellent", she also felt that it had to be one which maintained a Mallorcan identity and was not therefore one that could have been a project anywhere in the world.

While the consortium overseeing the plan disputed her suggestion that it would not have had at least a "Mediterranean" flavour, the very mention of a Mallorcan identity highlights an issue which dogs much of the thinking surrounding Mallorca's tourism and its future. It is an issue for which there is clear blue water in the seas off the Playa de Palma and a clear line in the sand of the beach itself - those between the idealists and the pragmatists. It is an issue also that means little to most of Mallorca's tourists for whom Mallorca means, at best, a largely undefined and nebulous concept of Spain or for whom it means nothing other than a place of sun and beach - anywhere in the world, if you like.

What is this identity to which Armengol refers? If it is architectural, then it should not be beyond the wit of architects to conceive a resort in a Mallorcan style, whatever this actually is. But the architects have not always had a sympathetic Mallorcan design to the forefront of their plans when coming up with much recent construction of whatever sort - housing, hotels or commercial. Anywhere in the world? Yes, it might well be.

In the sixties, Mallorca and Spain willingly took the shilling of foreign exchange that was necessary to propel the country out of backwardness. It came in the form of mass tourism and of course at a cost. The rag-bag construction of many resorts that followed destroyed whatever identity there might once have been. Playa de Palma, much of Calvia and other resorts, such as Alcúdia and Can Picafort, were built for purpose rather than for the comfort of a mythical Mallorcan identity, one that hardly impinged upon the thought processes of planners and even less on those of tourists who were off to sunny Spain; it mattered not the slightest that they were going to an island off the mainland. And for most tourists, nothing has really changed.

A couple of years ago I wrote a series of articles on "Spanishness" as it applies to Mallorca. The starting-point for doing so was the type of question it is not uncommon to come across on the internet; the type which goes along the lines of is such-or-such a resort "Spanish". And note that it is "Spanish"; it is never "Mallorcan".

The question is hard to answer as it is most unlikely that the ones asking the question really have a conception themselves as to what "Spanish" entails, let alone Mallorcan. Few resorts can lay claim to Spanishness; they could indeed be anywhere in the world. There are exceptions, but even these are questionable. Take Puerto Pollensa for example. It hasn't suffered the same brutalism as other resorts and has maintained, so it is said, some of that Mallorcan identity. But what actually is it? Its most talked-about visual feature is the pinewalk. Are we saying that a Mallorcan identity can be symbolised by a pine tree? Perhaps we are.

In the same way as tourists might struggle to describe a Mallorcan identity, so also, I would suggest, would the idealists such as Sra. Armengol. My guess is that what she and others have in mind is the re-creation of the "pueblos" by the sea. But it is only a guess, because it is not elucidated.

Less unclear is the idealist retreat into other aspects of this identity. Gastronomy, for instance. In an ideal Mallorcan tourism world, all tourists would be tucking into tumbet or arroz brut. But they don't. Not in the major resorts at any rate. Take a walk along Alcúdia's Mile and you'll be hard-pressed to find anything that isn't pizza or grill. International. Anywhere in the world.

The pragmatic alternative is the one that has grown up since the '60s. Errors there most certainly were when the resorts were put together, but resorts, fundamentally, are places built for purpose and which have to be fit for purpose to serve their masters from overseas. Identity, even were it to be defined, is secondary, as it always has been. There is a standardisation in resorts, one that conforms to a more internationalist identity. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding more recent architectual abominations, a revision for resorts, given current-day appreciation of greater design sympathy, need not preclude something that is more discernibly Mallorcan or Spanish. Which is why Playa de Palma is likely to be a huge missed opportunity and which is why it should have spawned regeneration in other resorts. Or am I just being idealistic?

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Incuriosité Tue Le Chat: Local tourists

Pollensa, as with the surrounding area, has a past with France. Some of the first "package" holidaymakers to the area were French; they used to fly in by seaplane from Marseille donkeys years ago. The connection between Pollensa and France may not be as historically strong as that which Sóller can boast through old trading links, but it is strong nonetheless, while a more ancient tie is a linguistic line that applies to the whole of Mallorca - that through Occitan and Catalan - and an even more ancient one which has it that the island was first inhabited by people from what is still sometimes referred to as the Occitania region of southern France.

I was showing a southern French couple around the old town of Pollensa. They had not been before. Imagining seeing the place for the first time, through their eyes, is to be impressed by the elegant chic that has been moulded from within the imposing scale of the town's churches, brooding mountain and steps for every day of the year to the Calvari oratory. Considering the place for the first time, in their minds, is to be captivated by its cultural overtones. Aptly enough an exhibition is currently taking place in honour of the artist Tito Cittadini, an Argentinian, yet one who further confirms a French lineage - one of having studied in Paris with Anglada Camarasa before the two moved to Pollensa and found the "Pollensa school" with its own ties back to French impressionism and most obviously Manet.

To go to Pollensa in November, even as one who is familiar with the town, is to feel almost like a first-timer, especially if it is you doing the guided tour. In summer, the bustle and the heat make you ignore everything and wish to scurry off for the nearest shade and cooling drink. In November you can actually look for once. Especially as you are undisturbed. But it is this that makes you wonder. Why are you being undisturbed? Where on earth is everyone?

It is a Saturday lunchtime. In the Plaça Major only one bar is open: the Café Espanyol, itself an iconic image of the town, one represented many times by an artist's brush and on the storage card of a tourist's digital camera. A short walk away is the Seglars square at the foot of the Calvari from where thousands upon thousands of photos have been taken of the steps which climb to its summit. You can reinvent through your memory the scenes of all the visitors milling, of their cameras being pointed, of their sitting on the banked terraces. But it is necessary to reinvent, because there is barely a soul to be seen.

Familiarity breeds familiarity. You cease to see a place until such a time as you're made to see it, as in telling a visitor or two about it. It's extraordinary the degree to which towns like Pollensa come to be taken for granted or are simply neglected even by those who might live close by. There are of course the "events" which attract, the town's fair having been and gone only a few days ago. But to visit these is to fall into the same summer trap of unseeingness. What is looked at is craftwork or the skill of a wheelwright and not, for example, the vertical immenseness of the parish church which seems to threaten with toppling on top of you or to be aware of its monolithic dominance in the main square or even of the streets which interlink churches or of the bells that resonate from them.

The absence of tourists at just the sort of time when a real appreciation of Pollensa can be gauged is a story too often told and too often debated. But what are also absent are local tourists. Is it just a case of familiarity breeding familiarity? Not necessarily. In fact, it's probably nothing of the sort. It's a case of incuriosity breeding incuriosity. You might live not far away, in Alcúdia for instance. But how often is a visit made to Pollensa, its port or its outlying Cala San Vicente? Never, might come the response. And so it is in reverse, be it to the city walls and Roman ruins of Alcúdia, the toy town timewarp of Barcarès or the scary twist and turn up the mountain to La Victoria.

Perhaps it takes visitors, be they from France or wherever to force you to stop and take in the spectacular that is Pollensa or other local towns. Perhaps. But it shouldn't be. Familiarity does breed familiarity, that of the comfort of the telly or of the telly in the regular bar in regular surroundings. So much time though in winter to go and look, and so much time and effort worrying about winter tourists who don't come, which means that the forgotten are the tourists much closer to home. Right on the doorstep in fact. We're all tourists now. Or should be.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

All That Noise And All That Sound: Playa de Palma

"The noise that is made does not correspond with the reality."

This could be a maxim for much of what occurs - or rather doesn't - in Mallorca, especially when it comes to major projects. Never a truer word spoken, and it took a German to speak them. A couple of weeks ago TUI's Volker Böttcher expressed his frustration with plans for the regeneration of Playa de Palma. "We hear many things but don't know what they will be." All that noise and all that sound.

Playa de Palma, where TUI are concerned, is important. It represents a stable, staple even, element of the tour operator's portfolio. Böttcher said that in twenty years time it will still be important, but this future importance doesn't overlook present deterioration and a future which includes new and exclusive hotels. This is meant to be the future. Or was. The plan for Playa de Palma is in disarray.

The noise surrounding the regeneration has emanated from far and wide, even from higher echelons of national government. The iconic significance that has been attached to the project makes the wailing because of its collapse, partial or total, that much louder amidst the sounds of false icons and ambitions crashing into the bay of Palma.

The project has always been highly ambitious, which is not a reason for its deserving to fail. It has envisaged a transformation of the extended resort, one designed to establish long-term competitiveness for what is the most emblematic of Mallorca's tourist areas. The scale of the ambition has, though, been its downfall.

The regeneration has been proposed for what are currently productive hotels and for residences. It is this that distinguishes it from urban renewal programmes, some of them aimed at creating tourism which doesn't already exist, and from altogether smaller, essentially one-off projects to upgrade coastal towns, such as have been the case in the UK. Add to this the need for wholesale expropriation of hotels and dwellings, and what you have with Playa de Palma is something of a leap into the unknown, the remodelling of a tourist area in people's lifetimes. As far as I know, it is unique.

Talk of expropriation raises its own issues. Apart from a psychological dimension, there is that of agreeing valuation and all the likely legal wrangles that would arise, the swiftness with which compensation might be forthcoming (and it hasn't always been swift in the past with other infrastructure schemes) and precisely where the money would come from, not just for compulsory purchase but also for the whole project. There is the mere matter of some four billion euros to be found, roughly a third of it from the public purse. We now have the Balearics president calling on the European Union to cough up for tourist-resort modernisation. For Playa de Palma in other words.

The consortium that is overseeing the plan accepts that it has made mistakes, mainly of a presentational nature. It believes though that regeneration cannot be effected without expropriation and re-building. It's right. It can't be. When its director of planning, Joseba Dañobeitia, speaks of hotels built from the '60s into the '90s being incapable of competing with other, newer destinations, he should also be adding that whole resorts can't compete. Playa de Palma, and the same applies elsewhere, is hamstrung by its past, by having been a first-mover in mass tourism and having been left behind both by greater modernity and by tourist expectations.

But what is now left of the regeneration plan is some tarting-up and a piecemeal approach whereby individual owners can seek to enter into agreements with the consortium for their property or land to be purchased. Rather than an integrated, root-and-branch approach, you end up with the worst of all solutions; something which is neither here not there.

The consortium insists that what has been envisaged is not a "revolution" or "luxury" but simply an improvement to tourism quality. The trouble is, as TUI's boss has alluded to, that no one has been clear as to what has been really envisaged. Hoteliers insist that what is needed is a maintenance of three-star accommodation, that which satisfies the sort of market that has been meat and drink to Playa de Palma for years. Perhaps so, but going forward would this be acceptable to the likes of TUI which has called for hotel upgrades? The plan, in basic terms, is not complicated. Aesthetic improvements and better hotels, and if this means fewer hotels, then so be it; there is over-supply as it is.

Playa de Palma will remain important to TUI, but twenty years is a long time. It has been long enough to see Playa de Palma and much of Mallorca engulfed by what maybe should have been foreseen but wasn't, namely the emergence of quality rivals. I have no wish to make light of the proposals for expropriation and of the impact this would have, but they should send in the bulldozers tomorrow. And not just in Playa de Palma.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Party Hats With The Coloured Tips: Cati and Guillermo

"Guapa," she said, pointing to the front-page photo. Eagerly I parted with the euro that secured my souvenir "Bulletin" with its front page of the happy couple and hurried home in order to frame it and place it alongside other treasured royalist memorabilia - the Prince Edward gundog-smiting walking stick and the Queen Mum gin bottle.

"Guapa?" Hmm, maybe. Kate seems unfortunately to be growing to resemble one of those crazed women of the American right - plenty of teeth, big-hair-lite and light in other departments quite possibly. Who was the bloke with her? Cheesy grin and balding. Ah yes, him. You know you're getting old when you can remember the footage of Wills' first day at posh prep.

It must be something to do with the fact that the Spanish are to blame for "Hello", all air-head celebrity, yachts and pink living-rooms with pink old dames in the mode of Barbara Cartland, were she still with us. This and their having their own royals. The Spanish José Public is already gripped with wedding fever; the Spanish media by Lady Di comparisons and the relative claims on guapa-ness between Diana, Kate and Spain's own Letizia.

There is a curious protocol within the Spanish media that makes the British royals Spanish. For the time being, Kate remains Kate. She's not been Catalina-ised or Cati-ed. Yet. The rest of the "firm" has been Spanished. William is not William. He is Guillermo. The old man is Carlos, grandma is Isabel and, most bizarrely of all, little bro' is Enrique. Why do they do this? It's not as if the British press turn the Spanish king into a one-time Leeds United and Welsh centre-half-cum-centre-forward: John Charles. There again, there is the obstinate British media refusal to recognise that Zapatero is a president. Has to be something about republics versus democratic monarchies. At least I have always presumed this to be the reason for Zapatero being a prime minister in British eyes.

I don't know if Zapatero has sent his best wishes to the happy couple, but he'll probably be schmoozing up to Dave at the next EU shindig in the hope of an invite. But would he pass the Dave royal test? Unlikely that he's the sort who would have camped out overnight in order to be first to lob some royal confetti. I knew there was a reason for thinking that Dave was a dork, and now I know what it is.

But one imagines that Felipe and Letizia will already have their names being inscribed onto the seating plan, thus sending the Spanish media into a frenzy of further Kate comparisons. Our princess is better than your princess sort of thing. In fact something of the sort had already started before the great announcement, the Italian paper "La Repubblica" having put the cat among the royal pigeons by suggesting that Letizia was heading Di-wards. Marriage not as good as we thought. Looking rather thin and bored. To the rescue has come the King's sister who has declared that Letizia is better than Di and a whole lot smarter. Which wouldn't be difficult.

To be fair, Letizia is a whole lot smarter. She did a proper day's work for a kick off, unlike Diana, unless you count her time at the nursery school when the kids were teaching her the times table. Now though we have Kate to add to the mix, and the question as to whether she has actually had a proper job or not.

Mercifully though, the Spanish press is not totally sycophantic when it comes to the royals, other countries' royals that is. One "sketch" of the Kate-Wills declaration to the world suggested that all that was missing was Lord Reg of Pinner in the corner playing the piano. What would he have been performing though? "Don't Go Breaking My Heart", "Sacrifice" or "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting"? The latter perhaps. One thing the Spanish press hasn't cottoned onto is the possibility of the honeymoon being in Magalluf.

Were Mallorca to be the location for the couple's "luna de miel", it's more likely they would be handed the keys of Marivent or accompany Felipe and Letizia on the royal yacht and water in Portals, that oasis of Mallorcan authenticity according to Louise Redknapp. But if not the honeymoon, then what about the stag do? Presuming that Harry - sorry Enrique - gets the best man gig, then Maga could well be on the cards. A spot of balcony diving, a night out at Benny Hills and then onto BCM to rub shoulders with Frank Lampard in the VIP lounge. And party supplies courtesy of the Middletons' company - balloons with the featherlight touch and party poppers that pop in the night.

But sadly, this is likely to only be a dream. Kate and Wills will honeymoon somewhere else, the Spanish press in tow with their long-range zooms along with the rest of the world's media. Yes, we have all of this to look forward to. And even if there is to be no Mallorcan honeymoon or stag do, we can also look forward to little bits of Britain come the great day. Street parties, Union Jacks, God Save The Queen and party hats with the coloured tips. But so much for what the Spanish will be organising, what about the Brits?

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mind Your Language: Catalan and the Guardia

A Moroccan interpreter, Saïda Saddouki, has been found guilty of defaming a Guardia Civil officer and been fined a total of 1500 euros. The Saddouki case is the first of two to go to court in Mallorca, along with one in Gerona on the mainland earlier this year, which all have as their theme the speaking of Catalan to Guardia officers.

In August 2007 Saïda Saddouki went to the Guardia's command headquarters in Palma in order to translate from Arabic. She spoke to a captain in Catalan. At a later press conference, she alleged that the captain racially abused her by referring to her as "una mora catalanista" (literally a Catalan dark-skinned woman). The court found in favour of the captain who denied that he had said what Saddouki had alleged.

The case has become something of a cause célèbre, thanks in no small part to the role of the Obra Cultural Balear, an organisation which this year celebrates its fiftieth anniversary as one that promotes Catalan in the Balearics. The OCB was with Saddouki at that press conference. Since the court's decision it has said that it believes her account of what happened and not the captain's. It has also referred to discrimination in matters of language, has brought the Saddouki case to the attention of Amnesty International and has called for international observers and journalists to attend a future court case.

In March this year a woman called Àngels Monera was fined 180 euros for showing a lack of respect to Guardia officers at Gerona airport. Her version of events was that officers, to whom she did speak in Catalan, showed "contempt" for the language, and detained her long enough for her to miss her flight. She then made complaints to the media and ultimately found herself in court as a defendant. The Guardia version was that she had spoken aggressively and had called them "Francoists". The officers insisted that they had asked her to speak Castilian not because they sought to "impose" a language but because they didn't understand Catalan.

The future court case to which the OCB has invited observers from the European Union, and which has also been raised with the European Parliament, concerns one Iván Cortés. On 7 August last year Cortés was allegedly given a beating by Guardia officers who had asked him to produce his papers at Palma airport security and to whom he spoke in Catalan. He was allowed to make his flight - to London - where a doctor seemingly confirmed his injuries. The OCB took up his case and publicised it widely in the media. The court case is the trial of one of those officers.

What are we to make of these cases? Setting aside the rights or wrongs of what has happened or may have happened, they point to one thing - a ratcheting up of the whole Catalan issue. Appealing to Amnesty International and international observers and media takes it to a new level, and one that, on the face of it, seems somewhat extreme.

By doing so, the OCB, which had its own brush with the Guardia when a leading member was detained during the "Acampallengua" (language camp) in Sa Pobla last year, is further politicising an already political issue and also elevating it, via Amnesty, into the realms of human rights abuse.

The Spanish constitution recognises, through the exercise of human rights, the cultures, traditions and languages of all the peoples of Spain. Yet there is a dichotomy in that the defenders of the state, in the form of the Guardia, are officially only Castilian speaking. It is a dichotomy that needs addressing. Whether witting or unwitting, the Guardia should not be pushed into being a defender of language as well; it's not their job. But as things stand, the Guardia, placed in an invidious position, are an institutional target for those with a Catalanist agenda. Which is not to say that they can't potentially be brought to book, as will happen with the Cortés case.

The Saddouki case would probably be quickly forgotten about were it not for the Cortés trial. It is the alleged violence, together with the Catalan connection, that will, in all likelihood, make it more of a cause célèbre than Saddouki. And it probably will attract international attention. Moreover, it is likely to ask some awkward questions, ones that go to the heart of the constitution and of institutions.

For many of you, the Catalan issue might seem pretty arcane, but the depth of feeling that surrounds it is of great significance and is one that colours much of the local political discourse, as shown with the debate over language in education. Yes it's political, but then it's been a political issue for centuries, and an incident at Palma airport is about to make it more so.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Off Their Faces: Underage drinking

58% of school students between the ages of 14 and 18 regularly consume alcohol. The average age of the onset of alcohol consumption is 13.6 years. The Spanish government intends to re-educate in order to stop alcohol misuse.

You might have read recent reports regarding the drinking of alcohol by Spanish youth. So you don't need me to remind you of the figures. Perhaps not, but the above comes not from the recent survey of youth drinking, but from one conducted in 2000 and written up in 2002, one that was compiled in the context of growing concern as to the more widespread phenomenon of the botellón and of so-called binge drinking among Spanish youth. Just for the record, the new survey has found that habitual alcohol consumption between the ages of 12 and 18 is practised by 61% of the sample.

Allowing for a difference in the age ranges of the 2000 and latest surveys, the inference is that alcohol use among Spanish youth hasn't risen significantly over the decade. Nevertheless, the latest survey has stirred up alarm, not least because it has found that it is so easy for under-18s to buy alcohol without showing any ID.

Incredible. Where have they been? Want to know how easy it is to be an underage drinker in Spain? Take a look at a few internet forums from the UK and you'll find out. As one commentator put it, unless you're in a pram, sucking on a dummy you won't have any problem getting served in a bar or liquor store in Spain. In Valencia, just as an example, one survey discovered that there was virtually no request for ID for those of 15 or older.

Ah yes, you say, but this business of the average age of the onset of consumption, that's the age at which children start drinking the odd glass of wine as part of the "responsible" attitude to alcohol in Spain. Sorry, but it isn't. This is the age that youth start getting steamed up under their own steam as well as being "guided" by their parents. It is an unsettling fact for those who have the wholly misguided impression of alcohol and youth in a country which, because it isn't the UK, is held up as some kind of panacea of responsibility. It is an unsettling fact, given that the Fundación Alcohol y Sociedad, which conducted the latest survey, has highlighted the "structural problem" of society as a consequence of alcohol as well as the levels of violence associated with drinking.

The UK alcohol charity Drinkaware revealed last year that the average age at which young people take their first alcoholic drink was ... 13.4 years of age. Virtually no difference. It also discovered that 71% of 16 and 17 year olds drink more than once a week. Again allowing for a difference in age range and a not unreasonable assumption that older teenagers will be more inclined to drink regularly, then the Spanish and UK figures are similar.

If all that the Spanish surveys did was to point to the responsible odd glass of wine, then it might be legitimate to distinguish between a responsible drinking culture (Spain's) and an irresponsible one (the UK's). But they don't do this. Both surveys point to the influence of the botellón street drinking party, while the latest highlights the almost complete failure of drinking-age law.

The survey of 2000 shows that the problem of youth drinking is not something of recent origin. And nor is the botellón, despite press treatment which might suggest otherwise. Back in 2002 the government was planning to prevent the drinking of alcohol in the streets and to ban the sale of alcohol to under-18s. Who was saying this then? Mariano Rajoy, now the national leader of the Partido Popular. His ominous-sounding, Khmer Rouge-style re-education programme, assuming it was ever launched, has been another failure alongside those to do with the sale of alcohol and street drinking.

The botellón phenomenon gathered strength in the 1990s. Yet it has been taken, without the slightest shred of evidence, as having been inspired by the drinking cultures of north European youth, especially the British. The conclusion that some would draw is that poor Spanish youth, previously all but teetotal, have been corrupted by an exported binge-drinking mentality. This is utter nonsense. One might add that British binge-drinking is, as far as the media is concerned, a more recent phenomenon than the botellón. Maybe, but it all depends on your definition.

The point is that youth culture is youth culture, of which drink is a part. It might once not have been so in Spain, but it now is, and the influences are the same - the lack of alternative forms of "entertainment", peer pressure, drink is "cool" and so is getting off your face.

In the summer, in the light of excessive drinking, fears were being expressed as to the future of fiestas (in Mallorca) as they were being treated as excuses for the young to get drunk. These were fears being expressed in different towns and also by a local expert in popular culture Felip Munar. What was once a traditional alcohol responsibility has been eroded to the point of threatening traditions, but the threat stems from a societal shift. And it is one that negates the wrongheaded, rosy perception of attitudes to drink among Spanish youth.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Homage To Catalonia: Joan Laporta and independence

Think what you like about the Premier League's overblown self-importance, one thing it hasn't done is to stray too far into the world of politics. With the exception of old Red Nose brown-nosing New Labour, it has happened the other way round - Tony Blair masquerading as a member of the Toon Army and David Mellor giving the then soon to start League pre-publicity by donning his Chelsea shirt to conceal the absence of his shorts. Populist politico-soccerism has mainly been the preserve of the charming and ever-humorous Silvio Berlusconi. But there is always Joan Laporta.

The former president of Barcelona now fancies himself as the Lionel Messi of Catalan pretensions, striking the goal for independence. Not that his being Messi would get him very far as the player is of course Argentinian. Never mind, Barça can always call on Xavi, Puyol, Busquets, Valdés, Krkic and Piqué as being the real Catalonian thing. And they are; they were all in the squad the last time Catalonia played an international.

Laporta, on the back of his stint as the club's president, has formed a political party - Catalan Solidarity for Independence - which will take part in upcoming regional government elections. Having added a porn star (shades of Italian politics here as well) to his strike force, Laporta is trusting in a wave of discontent in Catalonia to catapult him into stellar political orbit. It's unlikely to happen, but the discontent is real enough, much of it stemming from a constitutional ruling in July that Catalonia cannot be a "nation" and thus cannot be self-governing.

Laporta was unashamedly Catalanist during his time as president. He styled Barcelona as a surrogate Catalonian national team and in so doing made it symbolic of Catalonian nationalism and a desire for independence. This overlooked the fact that Catalonia does have a team, albeit one unrecognised by UEFA or FIFA and therefore confined to the playing of friendlies (as is the case with all the autonomous regions of Spain which have their own football teams, including the Balearics), but did not neglect the fact that historically Barça has long been representative of Catalonia. The club's slogan "més que un club" (more than a club) encapsulates this, and it is one that dates back to Franco's days - to 1968 to be precise - but has its roots in a time well before this.

Laporta clearly understands his history and the importance of Barça to Catalonian ambitions. And he is using his association with the club, and therefore the fame he derived from being its president, to fuel his own ambitions. Like Berlusconi, however, he is not a million miles away from the hint of scandal. He denies anything untoward, naturally enough, but the current president is keen to establish quite how Barça's finances came to be as shaky as they are.

Whether Laporta can be taken seriously will be answered come the elections. But what has to be taken seriously is the question that simply won't go away - that of Catalonian independence. A mark of quite how unsettling this could be occurred in January 2006 when an army general, José Mena, was placed under house arrest for suggesting that there would be military intervention were Catalonia to be granted ever greater autonomy.

In Mallorca, an indication of attitudes to the Catalonian question came in response to the constitutional ruling. While there was political support for self-government across the spectrum, with the notable exception of the Partido Popular (PP), a demonstration in Palma opposing the ruling attracted a mere 300 protesters. Popular support for Catalonia extends to the Barcelona football team, but not to an independent Catalonia. Despite the linguistic connection, historical Catalonian radicalism runs counter to a Mallorcan conservatism. And this is no better seen than in the stance of the PP's local leader, José Ramón Bauzá. His objections to the use of Catalan do not exclude the islands' Catalan variants; quite the opposite. What he does take exception to is what he has called the "imposition" of Catalan from Catalonia. In other words he, and this would not be an unpopular sentiment in Mallorca as a whole, is allied firmly with Madrid (and the Spanish state) and not with Barcelona.

We have to see what happens with Laporta's campaign and in the Catalonian elections. The prediction is that the centrist Convergència i Unió will win. While this party is equivocal on nationalism and so might quieten the independence issue for now, the issue will re-emerge, and the next national elections could prove crucial. It has been claimed that the constitutional ruling against self-government was politically inspired by the PP nationally which opposes Catalonian aspirations. This contrasts with a Zapatero government which has been accused of bending too easily to Catalonian demands, such as in granting extended local powers in 2006.

The Catalonian question will not go away. Maybe one day there will be an independent state. But for many Mallorcans and indeed Spaniards, the most important issue will not be political. It will have to do with football. An officially recognised Catalonia with a core of Barcelona players might take some stopping, bringing an end to Spain's European and world domination. And who knows, maybe President Laporta will be there to cheer as team manager Carles Puyol raises the cup. For Catalonia.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Monday, November 15, 2010

And Cancel Christmas

By the roundabout at the top of Puerto Alcúdia's "Mile", a single festive "Bones Festes" sign swings forlornly in the autumn wind. Alcúdia town hall will have to decide whether the rest of the usual lights will go up this Christmas. They might put them up, but whether they switch them on or have them on for only limited periods will also need to be decided. The town hall's electricity bill has increased by a massive 40% in a year. "A barbarity," has said mayor Llompart of the rise, one caused partly by new infrastructure in the town but also by - the target of Sr. Llompart's upset - GESA's prices.

Alcúdia has already taken the decision to switch off much of the town's street lighting at midnight, including that by the old town's walls. Alcúdia like a Christmas tree? Tonight or any other night over the festivities, the city won't belong to me or to you. We won't be able to find our way round. Angels of half-light. If that. Not that it probably matters. No one much will be around. They'll be holed up at home, huddled over the radiators, reduced in the number switched on, the result also of higher electricity prices, or crouched by a gas heater, breathing in butane that has also gone up.

Christmas is coming. The goose is getting thin.

You can get goose for your Christmas lunch in Mallorca, just as you can get turkey. But what has been a meat-buying trend to downscale for some time will carry over into Christmas. Rabbit is going to be popular. And some of it may well be wild. The fincas are alive with the sound of guns, not all of them necessarily those of the licensed hunters.

FACUA, the consumers association, reckons that household spending in the Balearics as a whole will be down by some six per cent this Christmas. While the purchase of gifts is likely to remain at the same sort of level as last year, there is one element of Christmas cheer that has taken a nosedive, and not only at Christmas. Alcohol. Since 2007 sales of beer have slumped by 35%; those of higher alcohol content, spirits etc., by 27%. You can see the evidence of this in the supermarkets. Prominent, so as to grab the attention of shop traffic, are low offers on the likes of cava. Even checkout girls, unused to the role of playing salespeople, are drawing attention to the cheap booze.

It isn't of course just the supermarkets which have been hit and which have had to introduce more basic lines. There are the bars and liquor stores as well. 30,000 of them across Spain have closed since the crisis took a hold. The "El Gordo" Christmas lottery will still attract its syndicates willing to fork out for what are expensive tickets, but lotteries in general, games of bingo and slot machines are also victims of lower spend on things other than necessities.

And with the slump in sales comes also a slump in revenue - that to the government, one only partially addressed by the increase in IVA. There is a further non-necessity that has seen the treasury's coffers emptied: the sale of cigarettes. In 2008 this fell by a massive 37% in Mallorca. So maybe tourists don't spend all their money on fags after all. The upward adjustment in prices on tobacco last year, primarily duty, has enabled the government to recoup some of the loss, but as with more or less everything, the curve heads downwards.

This will be an austerity Christmas, implies FACUA. Appropriately enough amidst the austerity of governmental measures which show no sign of bringing confidence back to consumers or to business. And the fear is that the new year might even herald something worse. The markets have sunk their teeth into Greece and spat it out, just as they are doing to Ireland, despite its regular austerity revisions. Portugal could be on its way out of the euro anyway. So then there's Spain.

The new year will also see the introduction of the smoking ban. Predictions of a 15% fall in bar sales as a result would come on top of the decline in alcohol consumption that has already been experienced. The bars and restaurants have started a campaign to stop the ban or to at least delay its introduction. It's a bit late, one would think. But maybe they have a point in that now is probably not the best time to bring it in.

For now is the time of less, less, ever less. Except when it's more, more, ever more. Like the cost of electricity. Town halls in penury, the lights going out all over Alcúdia and elsewhere in Mallorca. Little to celebrate during the festive season, with less-extravagant feasts and fewer cups that cheer. It would be nice to say "merry Christmas", but it would be said through gritted teeth. As for a happy new year, the bars will be the first ones to assess the accuracy of that, come 2 January. And after that ...?

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Merry Wives Of Muro: Pumpkins

"Peter, Peter pumpkin eater
Had a wife but couldn't keep her
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well."

The pumpkin shell, as with most of the pumpkin, can be eaten. It is not used solely to store wives nor to have a ghoulish face carved into it and to be made into a lantern. There are few more versatile vegetables than the pumpkin and no vegetable that is monikered with quite the same suggestion of humour.

"Pumpkin". It sounds daft, and the sound is sufficient to detract from its usefulness. Its comedic possibilities extend also to its inhabiting the end-of-the-pier, ooh-er-missus nudge-nudge alongside the marrow, especially when the pumpkin grows not in its more conventional round shape.

A friend of mine, a local journalist with the Spanish press, did a piece last year about a pumpkin grower from Pollensa who had cultivated a pumpkin that was over a metre in length and substantially engorged in its girth. The accompanying photo, fortunate or unfortunate, depending upon your prurience, showed the grower lying on top of the vegetable. I leave you to imagine exactly how this looked and where one end of the tuberous protuberance was located.

The pumpkin, butt of jokes or not, is celebrated locally. It has an autumn fair more or less in its honour. Muro's. Local restaurants prepare different pumpkin-based dishes and there is, inevitably, the how-big-is-your-pumpkin competition. Pity the poor and humble pumpkin, forever cast as the vegetabilist jester for whom size is all that matters.

In Muro and neighbouring Sa Pobla, the soil hennaed red with Saharan dust is the production line for cabbages, potatoes, pumpkins and other veg. Sa Pobla is undergoing a shift in its traditional produce allegiance, the more widespread cultivation of rice challenging the potato sufficiently for it to assume the place of honour at the head dining-table of the town's own autumn fair this year. Muro though maintains its idiosyncratic pumpkin roots, a mere un-sizeworthy three inches into the earth around the town at the commencement of the vegetable's growth.

The pumpkin is, however, a deceiving fellow. Its orangeness hints at something rather more succulent than it actually is. Like packaging elaborated to entice the consumer with a product that is no more superior to one without the benefit of a design consultant and budget, the pumpkin suggests more than it delivers - in its raw or basic state. It's what you can do with a pumpkin which is more rewarding than simply, say, tossing chunks of it into a pan of boiling water.

It has, for example, and thanks to its seeds, given the world the finest bread known to man. Pumpkin bread. "Kürbis-Brot" in German. As with their fabulously diverse beers, the Germans do things with bread unimaginable to those raised on a loaf of Mothers Pride or Spain's insanely named Bimbo. In Muro the pumpkin has been aligned with prawns, mixed with couscous, made into a pie with pork and parsley, combined with chocolate and mandarins and - naturally enough of course in the land of the ensaïmada - been added to the pastry.

In its honour and in honour of Muro's fair, time it was, thought I, to follow a recipe for a casserole with local sausage and pumpkin. Simple enough. To concoct that is. But in the greengrocery section of the local Eroski, at the time of the pumpkin fair, was there a pumpkin to be seen? There was not. All the pumpkins had gone. Where or where could my pumpkin be?

The answer was simple. All those Pedros, Pedros pumpkin eaters. They have made for their wives some seasonal shell suits. And now they are the merry wives of Muro, thanks to their Pedros, Pedros pumpkin eaters and how big that the pumpkins grow. Ooh-er, missus.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Back To The Future: The new agriculture

There's a lot of land in Capdepera. An awful lot of land that they don't quite know what to do with. The old municipal rubbish dump had been earmarked for the faintly batty Christian theme park idea. Alcúdia may now be its location.

There's more land in Capdepera. Agricultural land that currently isn't doing anything. They're looking at re-cultivating it with the aims of selling produce to tourists and of creating employment in what is all but a lost agrarian tradition in the town.

The revitalisation of agriculture has become something of a theme bubbling under a wider discussion of the need for economic diversification. A back-to-the-future new agrarianism was spoken about in May this year when a gathering in Alaró, organised by the Camper footwear company, addressed the issue of diversification. It is one that plays well with an insular-nationalist Luddite tendency that would happily turn the clock back on tourism industrialisation.

But the worthies who met in Alaró were far from being cranks. Among their number was Jerry Mander of the International Forum on Globalization who, following something of a farmyard line of thinking, asserted that Mallorca was living a fantasy in believing that tourism would return to being the "hen laying golden eggs". Hens laying real eggs is more like it.

The feasibility of the plan for the land in Capdepera will consider what might be grown there and what might be viable in terms of products for sale to tourists. It is a plan that makes sense. Mander is not the only one who recognises the pointlessness of much more development of a strictly tourist nature - hotels, for example. Alternative uses of land that might be contemplated are similarly either pointless, such as ever more unnecessary golf courses or industrial estates, or would be most unlikely to be sanctioned on environmental grounds - proper theme parks, for instance. So what do you do with it that might be productive, other than perhaps build houses, which would require endless arguments regarding land re-classification?

While the plan appears to make sense insofar as it would be an appropriate use of land, where it may founder is on economic grounds. The problem with the new agrarianism of Mallorca is finding markets for what, in all likelihood, would not be much greater than cottage industries. The wine industry in Mallorca is something of an indicator of this. While there is reasonable volume created by the bigger and older bodegas, the newer ones are much smaller; they are of a boutique nature. Volume is low, prices are high, export possibilities are limited.

The cautiousness which seems to surround the Capdepera scheme is correct. It is correct because the demand for what might be grown - among tourists - is most unlikely to be huge. Herbs, olives (for oil), vines (for wine), dried fruits. None of it sounds like it will amount to anything substantial. Tourists might buy the odd bottle of wine or oil, but they do so already. The focus on tourists may be strategically flawed.

I have to thank the excellent skybluemallorca.com for the following information regarding Mallorcan olive oil. It says that a mere 2.7% of total sales of oil is local. The rest goes abroad, with Germany being a key market. It is export, not through a tourist's bottle or two, but through bulk that is far more important. And not just to mature European markets.

I know of a move to export wine and olive oil to Hong Kong. This involves at least one of the main bodegas on the island. Supplying to the Chinese market could only ever be limited because of the constraints on volume in Mallorca, but this bigger thinking in terms of market should surely be more of a model for what might be envisaged in Capdepera and indeed elsewhere in Mallorca. High-quality product, not necessarily cheap but more exclusive, and marketed as such, for newly aspirational consumer markets, such as the Chinese.

There is though a further issue and it is one related to productivity and the use of technology. Advances there most certainly have been, but one of Mallorca's more important crops, almonds, has suffered because the local industry has lost competitiveness. In the same way as the wine producers of the Napa Valley in California took on the French wine industry by adopting more advanced technology, so California's almond growers have attacked the indigenous almond industry.

What all this suggests is that, just as there should be a more coherent tourism strategy so there also should be one for agriculture. Back to the future it might be, but there is still much to be said in its favour. With investments in technology and marketing, there might even be a bright future. The fear is that Capdepera would fall into the black hole of simply being too local and too narrow in its focus. It is a lot of a land, but only relatively speaking. But it can be used to good purpose as there is an awful lot of market that can be served - and not just that of Mallorca and its tourists.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Visiting Hours: Inca hospital and patient information

You're in hospital. You are suffering all manner of indignities. Pointing Percy at the potty thing and missing. Being woken by the interrogation-like strip lighting at six in the morning in order to take the pill that is delivered in its little plastic cup.

Bad enough. But there is worse to come. Someone from the local council decides to pay you a visit. Nice of them to think of you? Possibly, and they would say that they were. Being nice, that is. The only problem is that they might have some ulterior motive. Or they've got hold of your details when they shouldn't have.

If you happen to be admitted to Inca hospital, then you can count yourself lucky if you don't actually live in Inca. If you don't, then the council won't bother with you. Not that they would ask you where you live. Oh no, because they already know. How? Because they've got the gen. Name, address, telephone number, hospital room and some medical detail - the particular care unit and nature of the admission. They pick it up in a sealed envelope left at reception every week or so. Or they did. Ever since the story broke a week or so ago as to what has allegedly been going on with patient information at the hospital, the visits would seem to have stopped. And the foregoing is what is alleged to have been happening.

The apparent breach of data protection at the hospital is being taken seriously enough that the national data protection agency (AEPD - Agencia Española de Protección de Datos) is saying that it will act even if there is no specific "denuncia" forthcoming.

The basics of the case are these. Patient information has allegedly been passed to Inca town hall and specifically to the Partido Popular ruling party. This has then been used as the basis for visits to patients by representatives of the town hall. In a way it could all be innocent enough. Just saying hello, how are you. Being nice, in other words. But the suggestion is that the visits are intended as a bit of an electioneering exercise. Patients not resident in Inca have been ignored.

Since the rumpus kicked off there have been all manner of denials and explanations from the town hall. One reason given for the visits is that they seek to establish if social services help might be required. Fair enough perhaps. But involving social services, be they from Inca or any other town, should surely be the domain of the hospital's welfare department. Or am I missing something here?

Regardless of the purpose to which the information has been used and regardless of whether the information was asked for or not (and there have been conflicting reports regarding this), the town hall has no right to have the information. Assuming it has ever had it. The town hall is denying that it has patient lists.

One has to consider this case in the context of data protection law in Spain. At the First European Congress on Data Protection that was held in Madrid in March 2006 the then Spanish Minister of Justice, Juan Fernando López Aguilar, said: "The country is a pioneer in fulfilling its commitments to the guarantee and protection of rights and individuals, and in the tools to manage data. In Spain we have not made it easy for dealers in personal data who attempt to violate the law."

This wasn't bluster. Spain does take data protection very seriously. You only have to remember your history to understand why Spain, along with Germany and the individual German "Länder", are among the strictest of adherents to the principle of data protection. So the apparent flouting of this principle is something which the data protection agency is right to take seriously.

The story has taken a number of twists and turns. The town hall, in the person of the former mayor, Pere Rotger, admits that visits have been made for some time. But that lists of patients have never been used. He says that no one has complained; on the contrary, they are thankful for the visit. The current mayor, Rafel Torres, says that town hall representatives, such as the head of health, do make visits and quite openly so. Again without the aid of information. The Partido Popular is challenging the opposition PSOE socialists to prove that its representatives have used information, adding that the PSOE has also made visits to patients.

The town hall is mounting a strong defence. As you would expect, especially as a contravention of the law could land someone in choky. This though would be an over-reaction, if it is proven that the law has indeed been broken. The case smacks of, at worst, naïvity. What seems to have started out with the best of intentions and has probably continued to be so has backfired. But a question remains. Why would patients from other towns be ignored and seemingly knowingly be ignored?

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.