Friday, November 06, 2015

Failing Ramon Llull: Cultural tourism

Cultural tourism. Discuss. It's a term we hear a great deal of. It forms part of the grand alternative to Mallorcan sun and beach. But what is it? Of the various elements that comprise this alternative, cultural tourism is the most elusive. Gastronomy is obvious, so is cycling or golf or hiking. Culture, though? So much said but so little definition. Has anyone ever sat down and drawn up a document to explain exactly what it consists of and how precisely it is to be promoted? Or is it simply that they (the anonymous "they" of institutional tourism promotion) talk it up and expect the world to latch onto such an intangible concept?

What is Mallorcan culture in any event? There are differing interpretations thanks to the endless arguments as to Mallorca's history. What, if anything, is unique to this culture? And if there is, how strong is its claim on the perceptions of foreigners and so therefore tourists?

On 24 November there is to be a congress in Palma. It will be an act to celebrate the year of Ramon Llull, who died 700 years ago. This is a year that will straddle two years. The church suggested that it did, doubtless taking into account the fact that there are various interpretations as to when he actually died. So many differing interpretations of culture, and no one can definitively say when Llull went to meet his maker.

If there is one figure from Mallorca's culture who stands out, then it is Llull. He was more important than King Jaume I in that he was Mallorcan and contributed massively to the popularisation of Catalan, apart from everything else that he turned his hand to. Crucially, he was central - and remains so - to the narrative of Mallorca's spirituality, the religious version of this: an intellectual whose thinking went beyond the shores of the island and which came to define aspects of Catholic dogma. He was a towering figure of the mediaeval era who left, among other things, a physical legacy, that of the Miramar in Valldemossa.

The politics of cultural interpretation, however, make Llull as elusive as the notion of cultural tourism itself. Arguments have it that Catalan was not spoken at the time of Llull, that it was a hybrid of the different strands of language from the regions of north-east Spain and south-east France. There is even an argument which insists that Mallorquín existed before the Catalan invasion. This is, if you like, the right-wing perspective which seeks to distance Mallorca from a pure Catalan culture. Differing interpretations, therefore of Mallorca's culture.

Setting the linguistics aside, Llull is elusive in another regard. For most of the world, he is an obscure character. Even within the world of scholarship and academia, he is a lesser figure than a contemporary - Thomas Aquinas. He appears to lack, therefore, some sort of unique selling point that would establish him as a global relic of history and culture. As a consequence, selling Llull as central to Mallorca's culture and its cultural tourism becomes nigh on impossible.

The fact is, though, that there is uniqueness, were it only to be explained. Attempts should therefore be made. But what of these attempts to commemorate the 700th anniversary? Who's running the show, for example? Seemingly, it is the Ramon Llull Institute, headquartered not in Mallorca but in Barcelona, with a separate foundation in Andorra. The institute, it is said, hasn't got or settled on a budget to promote the anniversary, though it remains confident that everything will be right on the night and on the other nights that constitute the year of Ramon Llull. At least the Bishop of Mallorca has come up with a reasonable scheme, and that has been to get Air Europa to name an aircraft Ramon Llull and to show videos about Llull on its flights. Praise the Lord! The bishop has an understanding of marketing: "Ramon Llull is going to fly to many places thanks to Air Europa". But what of others?

Was, as part of the grand alternative, Llull highlighted at the World Travel Market? No. Had he been mentioned in passing, his name would have induced blank looks. The global tourism market can't be expected to grab hold of such a figure from Mallorcan culture without some dynamic effort to make him accessible and understandable, to create real meaning as to what this culture is and as to why the world should be interested.

But there should have been years of advance education about him, not leave it to the year itself and an inaugural concert by the Menorcan baritone, Joan Pons. No one will be interested, because interest hasn't been generated. The year will come, the year will go, and a major opportunity to establish some true meaning to Mallorca's culture will have been lost.

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