Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Walking On Broken Glass: Mallorca's tourism

It all looks so good. Everything in the tourism garden is rosy. A very good summer, a record even, and September and October bookings are strong, much stronger than usual. Some hotels are thinking of staying open into November, eating into the savage deadness of the off-season. Next year is looking fab as well. The hotels have secured revenue increases of up to 5% from tour operators keen to secure beds for next summer. Even tour operators from markets which send fewer tourists than the market colossi of the UK and Germany, such as those in Russia and Norway, are doing business with the hotels early. Everyone wants a piece of Mallorca in 2014. Everything in the tourism garden is rosy.

Go back to political events of the 1990s, and which ones dominated European thinking? Well, there were plenty of course, but among them were events in what had been Yugoslavia. These weren't just political events, these were war. There is no war as such in Egypt at present, but events have a habit of having an impact on tourism. In the '90s it was Croatia which suffered along with other coastal parts of the former Yugoslavia. Now it is north Africa, and Lord alone knows what might erupt if things go really wrong in Syria.

Mallorca is reaping the benefits and has been doing so since the Arab spring; just as it did when Yugoslavia was consumed by war. Whatever some commentators have warned about Spain and a descent into civil unrest, whatever wilder claims have been made about intervention in Catalonia, whatever the ropy image that has come with corruption, whatever bad publicity (in truth, never actually that bad) which comes courtesy of sections of the media, Mallorca (and Spain) rise above such negatives. Mallorca is reliable and it is safe. The politicians and those in the tourist industry keep reminding everyone of this, and they are right to do so.

Such reliability and such safety explain why the current season will prove to have been highly successful and also explain why tour operators have acted swiftly to ensure places for next year even if this might mean paying some more. The hotels and the local economy generally should be happy. Greater hotel profitability (and the hotels have been complaining for ages that they have been losing profitability) can only benefit the wider economy. Or so the theory might go.

The practice is a different matter. Higher prices and so greater profitability from all-inclusives do not mean wider benefits. Nor do they mean longer and more stable employment contracts. Nor do they mean that seasonality is lessened. And nor do they mean that the improvements to hotel stock and to resorts will be effected in the ways that the regional government had hoped when it passed the 2012 tourism act.

Everything in the tourism garden is rosy, but the roses are emitting fragrances that obliterate only temporarily the smells of decay. The rosy rose bushes of the tourism industry cannot disguise the thorns that attack the vulnerable and exposed parts of the industry, and one of these, ironically, is what might be perceived as an industry strength - the almost 300,000 hotel places in Mallorca.

Safe and reliable, Mallorca's reliability is founded in part on its capacity. For all that Croatia is now a competitor and no longer undermined by strife, it can compete only partially; it doesn't have the capacity. So surely Mallorca's capacity must be a strength. It is, but only if one adheres to the notion of tourism that is sharply divided between the glass slipper and slipping over broken glass. Magalluf is managing to demonstrate this divide. It is intended as a benchmark for modernised, transformed and beautified four and five-starring, but how can it truly ever be when glass is shattered along the strip within screaming distance of a five-star palacete playing host to Cinderellas and Prince Charmings bejewelled with the ostentation acquired from a Gucci store on Moscow's Tverskaya?

The rose garden conceals the compost of resorts grown old and too many hotels in need of radical facelifts. The tourism act was meant to have tackled this, but will it? There is many an observer who would aver that Mallorca simply has too many hotels and too many hotel places. They can't all be transformed. To remodel the industry in the shape of a glass slipper demands taking broken glass to the capacity and slashing it, but then what? Loss of jobs, loss of further business in a complementary sector already battered by all-inclusive and the conspicuously low consumption that comes with excess capacity?

It all looks so good. And for now, let's be thankful that it is. But then thinking about now has long been a Mallorcan failure. There's a whole tourism future that too few people have seen. But what will come as a shock to the blind is that the future is already here. It all looks so good but only because there are parts of the world which are suffering from an absence of goodness.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

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