Saturday, March 12, 2011

Wanted: Tourism Minister, Forklift Experience Not Necessary

The Balearics have been on their annual jaunt to Berlin. The biggest of the round of travel fairs, the ITB, has been the backdrop to the celebratory noises coming from Germany, those speaking of staggering increases in tourism volume this summer, anything up to 50% greater sales, and of hotel chains suspending sales because of fears that high demand will lead to overbooking.

An "historic" year for tourism in Mallorca and the islands does genuinely now appear to be in the offing, despite the best attempts of the airport workers to put the kibosh on this. For once, the joyous expressions of photo-opportunistic Balearics representatives at the travel fair are unforced. Gone are the smiles through gritted teeth of an imminent, crisis-imploding season. Holiday. Celebrate.

Amongst the ecstatic faces in Berlin have been President Antich and his tourism minister, Joana Barceló. They have probably been making the most of their time in the German capital; this year's fair may well turn out to be the last that either attends. Through happenstance more than design, they can go out on a tourism high.

While you would expect both to pitch up at such an event, it is the presence of Antich which is the more significant. Progressively, over the course of his current administration, he has become a far more visible player in matters tourism. His involvement with developments of new tourism markets, China and especially Russia, has coincided with the expansion of these markets. The Russian tour operator, Natalie Tours, anticipates bringing 40% more Russian tourists to the islands this summer; an increase in the number of flight connections with Palma and other Balearic airports (34 in all) is largely due to new routes to and from Russia.

To what extent Antich can take personal credit for these developments is open to question, but he does deserve some credit for seeming to have adopted a more proactive stance when it comes to tourism. It might be said that he, and previous presidents, should have been doing this anyway, but it hasn't always been so.

If one accepts the generally held view that tourism equates to roughly 80% of Mallorca's GDP, then a hands-on presidential role in the management of what is the island's only strategic industry should be a given. It is only belatedly, however, that a local president has seen this light. For Antich, it may have been that he was left with little choice, as he was the one element of continuity while successive tourism ministers were being shown the door.

Placing tourism in a more central and lofty position in the governmental hierarchy chimes with how it is perceived in some competitor destinations. In both Turkey and the Mubarak-governed Egypt, tourism is and was afforded a special, strategic role, one reflected by the power invested in officials to ensure the success of tourism.

In the past, I have argued for a similar arrangement in the Balearics, with tourism, in effect, being treated as a special case as an office of the president. Without going so far as this, Antich more recently said that not only should tourism be the priority but pretty much everything else in Mallorca should play a supporting role to tourism. If one follows this line of argument and one of the president assuming greater executive responsibility, where does that leave the minister for tourism?

The Fomento del Turísmo (the Mallorcan Tourist Board) called the other day for a future tourism minister to be someone from the industry. Quite how this might be effected if this were not an elected official, I am unsure, but it was a not unreasonable point.

While any minister should be capable of understanding and following a brief, tourism is too important to be left to a politician whose qualifications for the post are often questionable. Take, as an example, the unfortunate Miguel Ferrer. Transported from the mayoral seat in Alcúdia, he rematerialised for a couple of months behind the tourism ministry's desk. The rationalisation for his appointment was that he was mayor of a town with a significant tourism industry. He was also, before becoming mayor, a forklift truck driver. The logic of the argument was singularly lacking, and were there any logic to it, then why not put the mayor of Sa Pobla in charge of agriculture because the town is the centre of the island's potato production?

Antich, by default, has become the de facto tourism minister, more so than Barceló who, as with her predecessors, appears to operate via a manual by which Balearics tourism ministers are obliged to utter banalities in respect of so-called alternative tourism, amongst other things. Antich does at least seem to get it, something which his likely successor, José Bauzá, gives little confidence in suggesting that he does. It may well be that the Fomento think the same, and so have called for a professional appointment.

Whether tourism is placed in the presidential palace or not, the need for someone with the correct qualifications is enormous. It is not just that 80% of GDP that needs taking care of. Tourism at government level demands dealing with the most powerful of Mallorca's businesses, the hotel and travel groups, as well as the most influential of external businesses, the airlines and tour operators. It is a job that is presidential in its scope, importance and need to be seen to be credible. If not the job of the president himself, then it has to be that of someone with real clout, knowledge and contacts. It is not a job for a forklift truck driver.

Any comments to please.

No comments: