Thursday, March 24, 2016

Mallorca's New Model Tourism

It was over forty years ago. On the ferry to Mykonos I met two girls. There was a gaggle of locals at the harbour. One of them offered us accommodation. When we got there, he showed us a room with two beds. Then he pulled a third bed down from the wall. Three in a room.

I don't suppose that the owner for one moment considered declaring the drachma for tax. Equally, did he give any consideration to insurance, health and safety, overcrowding implications of the room? Who did? Travel was an adventure. Surprise and discovery were constant companions.

This was in 1972. A year later, Mykonos, like Mallorca and everywhere else, was caught up in the oil crisis. It was a watershed. The oil crisis caused a psychological upheaval as much as it did an economic one. For tourism destinations it was a time to cast off childish things, to grow up. Tourism had, until then, been an industry in search of a model. It had happened as opposed to having been designed. Yes, there had been Spain's Stabilisation Plan, one which had decreed the essential need for foreign exchange, with tourism the principal provider. But the rest ... ?

It did of course help that Franco died. The transition, allied to the fallout from the oil crisis, created the means for an assessment, and the analysis was not altogether positive. There was increased wealth, increased employment, but at what costs? Cultures had been left in tatters, a consequence of migration. The environment had been vandalised and abused. Workers had been exploited and left to hunt for building work in winter. Wealth was uneven. Some had grown fat and they were growing fatter with every bulldozing of dunes to make way for coastal development. There's a word for it: Balearisation.

As with Mykonos there were locals who had rooms. No one was bothered with standards and certainly not with tax. But it (and so the renting of private accommodation), as with the environment, culture, workers' rights, were to become key ingredients of democratic government and legislation. A model of tourism, a coherent one, was supposedly being created, one that also took account of the massive vulnerability that the oil crisis had exposed: a dependency on foreign tour operators.

If one comes forward to today, what has changed? Whatever is said to the contrary, environmental controls are great. The abuses of the 1960s and 1970s cannot happen again. The restoration of culture has been a triumph. But the model has failed to address the rest. Indeed, over the decades the model has made more acute the inherent vulnerability of the economy. It became a case of dependency on tourism per se and not just on the providers of this tourism.

Accommodation, issues of overcrowding, seasonality, pay and conditions; there is nothing essentially new about any of them. A novelty now lies with a style of politics, one antagonistic to the diktats of Big Tourism. The new model that is alluded to by the likes of Biel Barceló is one of empowerment of the islands and control of their tourism affairs, but they said this after the oil crisis without the aid of eco-nationalist, left-wing politicians.

It is a model to generate wider distribution of wealth, to eat into harmful seasonality, to create increased job security and higher wages. It is a model to also bring about greater diversification of the economy, and so is a model that is laudable in each and every one of its aims. But.

Tourism has created its own unstoppable realities, such as pleasure domes unrecognisable to a time traveller from the 1970s. It provides a parallel universe of human occupation in the lands that it craves, such as Mallorca: it is the most peculiar of industries. But it is a global one, some players in which are Mallorcan. No island is an island in the global tourism market. Yet Mallorcan politicians - some of them - appear to believe that it is. They take aim at the hoteliers in espousing the new model, while avoiding the real global powers: the same ones of the oil crisis.

Much as there is talk of a new model, they can't define it. Which is why there is a grand debate with the aim of working out what it is and what it will mean, for example, for the chap with his room (apartment) to rent out. It is a model that demands sophisticated analysis. Tourism itself has advanced massively in terms of its sophistication, but the politicians don't all give the same impression. They prefer insults and triumphalism, as in having pulled off the tourist tax to the fury of most of the industry.

To achieve this model, though, requires making all players part of the design and the solutions not perceived destroyers and villains. If they are, then finally there might be a true model of tourism.

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