Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Days Of Plenty And Of Cheapness

It is a week before the end of July. Seven in the evening. I stand at the top of Alcúdia's Mile where it crosses the main Artà road. I look down towards the Sant Martí mountain. Like a photographer, I switch focal length. Near, far, then near again. Wherever I focus, the image is the same. Something is missing.

It's hard to put an exact year on when things changed, but it was certainly before economic crisis took hold; well before. By that reckoning, it was also before the 5,000-capacity Bellevue had begun its move towards being all-inclusive. The change had set in, therefore, before 2005, because that was the year when Bellevue introduced all-inclusive, albeit on a small scale. There was other all-inclusive around by the Mile at that time but not a vast amount.

Once upon a time, later on a summer's evening at the height of the season, the Mile would have been that busy that the road by the bridge would become all but impassable. This was never human weight of numbers like that which brings traffic to a halt on Magalluf's strip, because Alcúdia's tourist humanity has never been like that. It has always been predominantly family. This was never "trouble" tourist mass, it was just sheer mass.

Why I stopped to switch my focus was because I had been stopped in my tracks. I had done a double-take. Was I seeing correctly, as there was hardly anyone around? It was a hot day, a very hot day, but it would have been a wrong assumption that everyone was still on the beach or by the pool. The British aren't like that. Or the Germans. Or most other nationalities except the Mediterranean ones. They go out by seven o'clock, regardless of the weather. Or did.

All-inclusive is the prime suspect, but its demonising has obscured the insidious and regressive advance of an equally significant phenomenon - the lack of spend by tourists. This phenomenon cannot be solely attributed to economic crisis. Regardless of the government's spending statistics (which should be ignored), lowering in spend has been a trend over many years, but now it has gathered extra pace.

Reasons why this has come about are not difficult to come up with. The introduction of the euro, increases in tax, poor exchange rates are all culpable, but even these reasons aren't enough.

As I stand at the top of the Mile and stare down its length, I try and calculate how many businesses there are along the road and just off it. In the end I give up and guess. Fifty, I reckon. Time was when these businesses would have had to have been pretty bad not to have done well. But that time is well in the past.

They did well even if they weren't particularly good because they were cheap. These businesses grew up from the seventies onwards on the back of cheapness; not necessarily cheap as in tackiness but cheap as in inexpensive.

Mallorca has its bread and butter resorts, and some resorts have their parts which are more bread and butter than others. Alcúdia's Mile is one such part, and it came into being for two reasons - one was the ever-increasing weight of numbers and the second was cheapness; a dirt cheapness that was impossible to sustain.

One explanation as to why there are now people missing at seven in the evening at the height of summer is something which many within Mallorca's tourism industry, including and particularly the politicians, have never quite grasped. Mass tourism can only exist to the benefit of all parties - tourists, businesses, whoever - if there is cheapness. The masses can and will still come but, in addition to being ghettoised in all-inclusives, they secrete themselves in hotel rooms or apartments with trophies gathered from a supermarket or the pizza shop. And if July can mean an absence at the top of the Mile, what happens when the Augustines arrive, as they traditionally spend even less?

Mallorca's tourism, its bread-and-butter tourism, has failed to react adequately to a trend that has been many years in the making. Indeed, one can argue that decline in real terms in spending pre-dated the introduction of the euro; research from the early 90s showed that there was a not insignificant number of tourists who represented a net loss because of their low spend.

The effects of low spend have now become dramatic, critical even. There is too much supply chasing too little money and too little willingness to spend. The days when no thought was paid to what was being spent (which wasn't very much) are a long, long way in the past.

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