Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reduce vs. Increase: Tourism volume

There are various themes related to Mallorca's tourism which crop up with regularity and those which surface far less regularly. The first category includes the controversies surrounding all-inclusives, off-season tourism and holiday rentals, while the latter includes the subject of tourism volume. These controversies would naturally form a part of any discussion of tourism volume, but the complexities raised by each of them in isolation are not of the same order of complexity entailed in the consideration of tourism volume. It is more complex because any adjustment to this volume pre-supposes a fundamental change in the nature of Mallorca's tourism, were there to be a planned reduction in the number of tourists, which is typically what the volume debate means.

It was reported last week that the Confederación de Patronales Turísticas de Baleares (CPTB), which is the body which represents a host of non-hotel, complementary offer businesses, had called for a reduction in tourist numbers. It hadn't and it has tweeted to that effect, just in case there was any misunderstanding. The call for a reduction came from the Més political grouping, one that combines the PSM socialists (with their Mallorcan nationalist beliefs) and others on the left, including the Greens. The CPTB had in fact only expressed a desire for tourists with greater purchasing power. Més agreed but wanted fewer of them.

Over the years, there have been discussions about the nature of tourism and about its mass in Mallorca. One can go back to the fallout from the oil crisis in the 1970s in order to discover the first really serious discussion. The shock of a sudden decline in tourist numbers (it took four to five years for numbers to recover) led some to wonder if this unexpected reduction might not in fact be beneficial. Such a thought didn't linger. Come the 1990s, and there was a boom in construction that didn't match that of the 1960s but nevertheless contributed to a major increase in tourist numbers. Economic advancement demanded ever more volume and ever more mass.

But some politicians were uneasy. Maria Antonia Munar, the president of the Council of Mallorca, was one of them. Another was the tourism minister in the first Antich PSOE administration from 1999 to 2003, Celesti Alomar. Munar made references to the need for more "quality" tourists over mere quantity. Alomar went further. He even spoke of the end of mass tourism.

No one has ever gone as far as Alomar, but the question of volume has continued to be an issue which has bubbled under the tourism surface without ever erupting into a full and frank debate. It is one that should be had, but because of its complexity and potential negativity it is studiously avoided in political circles. The complexity is such that any strategy for reduction would have to be considered alongside a strategy for what would compensate for any reduction.

Why should there be a reduction in any case? The stock answer, and the one which Més subscribes to, is the resource one. Land, services, the environment cannot cope with more volume or even with the existing volume. But is this true? What actually might be considered to be the point at which the volume of tourism is too great, and has it indeed been reached or passed? One of the foremost authorities on the subject, Dr. Ivan Murray at the university in Palma, has been unable to come up with what should be the ideal tourism population, except to have noted that twelve million tourists spread across the Balearics constitute "an aberration without comparison in the whole world".

It might be considered to be an aberration, but how can one be certain that it is? Where Murray is on firmer ground is when it comes to the contribution that this volume makes. He has discovered, among other things, that in 2008 a 35% increase in tourist numbers over those in 2003 had been required in order to realise the same level of tourism expenditure five years before. It was a discovery that was to prove to be not that dissimilar to one that the hoteliers federation were to make. But where the hoteliers wanted more tourists, Murray argued there should be fewer.

It has been known for years that there is a percentage of tourists who are either neutral in terms of their "profitability" for Mallorca or who represent a loss. As it costs more to service these tourists than they contribute, then why not cut them adrift and so reduce the tourism volume? It isn't as easy as this, though, and one reason why not is that politicians, regardless of what some might have said, cannot be boastful if numbers fall. Increases are what matter. They are the stuff of political machismo.

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