Saturday, January 16, 2016

Not A Good Week

It's not been a great week for tourism. Sure, the forecasts for tourism numbers coming to Mallorca are fine, but current levels of business obscure what's going on behind the scenes. The government's decree - one essentially to do with planning permissions - exposes the naïvité of an administration without a coherent strategy for the island's main industry.

It's been said often enough that the industry should be represented by ministers with some grounding in tourism. In Mallorca this has only truly happened once. The first ever minister, Jaume Cladera, was from the industry. Since then, only Carlos Delgado might be said to have had a real feel for tourism, something cultivated through years as mayor of Calvia. What we now have is a ministry run by someone with no background and for whom dialogue outside the government inner circle is primarily with the likes of GOB, the environmentalists. Of senior officials, there is the director-general, Pilar Carbonell. She is admirable in many ways, but it cannot be ignored that she comes from a restaurant background. She has not always been a great friend of the hoteliers.

Environmental claims cannot and should not be neglected, but to believe Barceló and the government the previous administration had signed a charter for "indiscriminate" building, both that of construction on rural land and of hotel extension. The word "indiscriminate" has been used in despatches with regard to the decree, but it is an exaggeration. The Partido Popular may rightly have been looked upon as cheerleaders for the hoteliers and few others, but its legislation was not a case of "anything goes", which is how the minister for land, Joan Boned, has styled it. Rather, it was legislation that finally, and after previous attempts (such as the 1999 tourism law), sought to effect a modernisation of resorts and of hotel stock, something badly needed in a hyper-competitive global industry.

For all his faults, Delgado adopted an essentially pragmatic approach that was designed to weed out substandard hotels and to raise quality. It is an approach that has brought some success: Mallorca's quality has risen. This pragmatism was also shown by one of the forgotten tourism ministers - Miquel Nadal. He's forgotten because he's in prison, but when not involving himself with corrupt activities, it was Nadal who brought in the decree whereby hotels with illegal places (i.e. those that had been created without planning permission) had to pay to make them legal. The result of this was the vast fund that is commonly and simply referred to as the "bolsa". It has been put to good use - for resort infrastructure improvements and other projects. Nadal was hardly anti-hotelier but he recognised a worthy and beneficial compromise when he saw it.

Little of this now applies. The current administration is an heir to the first Antich, PSOE-led government of 1999 to 2003 in more ways than just the tourist tax. The minister who was responsible for the old eco-tax, Celesti Alomar, was qualified in geography. This qualification is often associated with tourism but in different ways. One of them is a firmly environmentalist perspective, which was Alomar's. Finding the right balance between the competing needs of the environment and tourism is not straightforward, but the balance has been tipped one way or the other according to dominant ideology. Hence, there is constant incoherence, with the current government, one suspects, also listening to geographers at the university who have been expressing their concerns about construction for years.

To come back to charges of indiscriminate building, there was - during Jaime Martínez's time as Barceló's predecessor - one very revealing moment. It was when Martínez was responding to ideas for creating significant theme parks. He said that this would be virtually impossible because of planning restrictions. It is misrepresentation to suggest that the PP was giving carte blanche for wholesale destruction of the countryside and other parts of the environment. Which leads us to the part of the new decree concerning illegal buildings on rural land.

The PP had introduced an amnesty. In a way, it was a similar approach to the one that Nadal had adopted. The buildings can stay (though some might not have) in return for payment, with the idea of funds being used for assisting rural development which didn't automatically mean being destructive. Of these buildings, there are some which will now not form part of agrotourism, a branch of the island's tourism to which the government is showing a peculiar attitude: one would have thought it would be in favour, when it appears not to be.

The government, in justifying its decree, speaks of not allowing speculative development at the heart of which is often corruption. It has an argument in this regard, but if it is corruption that concerns it, then it should institute firm, independent auditing of permissions that are granted by the relevant authorities, typically town halls. And even those projects which are to be spared because they are ongoing might yet fall foul of zealous interpretation of being undertaken in the correct manner.

Barceló's desire for a new economic model is laudable in the sense that he wishes there to be greater diversification of the economy and greater share of the wealth that tourism generates, but this requires operating from a position of strength and not from one that undermines or disincentivises investment. It has not been a good week.

No comments: