Friday, May 24, 2013

Waving The Flag (Or Not)

The Balearics have this year lost more blue flags than any other region of Spain. This loss has not been on account of poor water quality but because beaches do not have sufficient numbers of lifeguards. Where the Blue Flag programme demands two lifeguards, some beaches in Mallorca only have one, the reason being because, under Balearics regulations, only one is necessary.

On the face of it, this sounds like very poor PR for Mallorca. You can imagine the headlines - "Holidaymakers' lives put at risk by absent lifeguards in Mallorca". Or something along these lines. It would sound bad, but who's making it sound bad? It is the people behind the Blue Flag programme, the Foundation for Environmental Education that sits in Copenhagen, passing judgement on beaches here, there and everywhere, and which acts like a virtual governmental body in issuing its decrees and awards.

I have spoken before about the Blue Flag programme and its organisers. I have no beef with the original motives behind the programme - ensuring the quality of sea water - but I do have a serious beef with the way in which the tentacles of the programme have, like an octopus extending its many arms and wrapping them around whatever happens to float past it, performed their own constrictive, bureaucratic, self-determined grabs of ever more elements of beach life to justify the programme's existence. It is a programme, a concept - that of the blue flag - that has acquired its own self-fulfilling existence. It has, I'm sorry to have to say, become imperialist in its hunger for influence and importance.

The Blue Flag programme is a classic example of a concept that started out with the very best intentions but which has been consumed by its own power - or its belief in its own power. The argument will be made that holidaymakers pay great attention to its awards and its withdrawals - an argument the organisation will make and that others will nod in agreement with. But do holidaymakers pay such attention? Once upon a time, they might have done, back in the days when the recycling of last night's dinner could be seen floating off a beach. Those days have largely gone, though. Local authorities, such as those in Mallorca, are fully aware of their duties of care to health and to the environment. And were they not, then their failings would be swiftly and abruptly made public. All over the internet, as an example.

Negative news about blue flags in Mallorca, or indeed positive news relating to them, is meat and drink for the local Mallorcan media, which takes reports of withdrawal of flags and elevates them to states of virtual scandal, when they are nothing of the sort. Yes, do let's have as many lifeguards as possible on Mallorca's beaches, but who really, among the holidaymaking public, pays any great attenton to what the Blue Flag programme has to say?

Take Puerto Pollensa. It doesn't have a flag at present. And? Has this been a reason for tourists refusing to come to the resort? I would suggest that it hasn't been. Indeed, I would be hugely surprised had they. The Blue Flag programme is not irrelevant - it most certainly has been relevant in promoting water safety - but its remit has gone way too far, and it has been a remit that it has determined for itself in advancing its own justification for existence and, as with any aspiring-to-near-governmental-status body, it milks its awards and withdrawals for all they are worth, ensuring that a media, inclined to only believe and promote the negative, laps up. As it does locally.

But this is the nub of the matter. Local. The absence of a lifeguard or two and the Blue Flag's promotion of the fact is used as evidence against irresponsible local authorities. The media heartily endorses this, but it doesn't stop to enquire about the messenger, the Blue Flag organisation, and about its grab of influence and power. Away from the local arena, though, no one really gives a damn. If they did, then Puerto Pollensa would be empty this summer as would be other coastal areas without the flag.

The fact is that the Blue Flag is a somewhat shallow trophy. Shallow, because it doesn't mean a great deal to everyday holidaymakers. There are some to whom it does, and they are those who still labour under the misapprehension that the Blue Flag programme is primarily or exclusively to do with its original purpose. But there are others for whom the programme has been an exercise in nothing more than an expansionist tendency.

Any comments to please.

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