Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Neglected Ministry Of Tourism

One of the oldest national ministries of Spanish government has the title "fomento". The word means development or promotion. It was created in 1832, its principal functions being, as they still are, transport and communications. In 1905 the ministry acquired a further responsibility - tourism, on account of the fact that the national commission for tourism was attached to the ministry. This commission was to evolve into what became the tourism directorate-general, directly responsible to the interior ministry. In 1951 this directorate-general became a ministry in its own right, sharing this with information. The best-known minister for information and tourism was Manuel Fraga, who held the position from 1962 to 1969. Arguably, he is still the best known of all ministers who have ever had tourism responsibilities.

Fraga, though he oversaw propaganda and censorship because of the information part of his remit, was one of Franco's more enlightened ministers. He certainly helped in getting the dictator (and the church and the Guardia Civil) to lighten up or to take a less strict line. His role in Spain's tourism development should not be underestimated.

Post-Franco, the ministry was wound up. The information element was no longer necessary, once censorship was officially done away with. Though this had clearly been an important ingredient for a dictatorial regime, it is possible to argue that the ministry, certainly once Fraga came in, gave tourism the greatest governmental prominence it has ever had. Tourism, thereafter, found itself tied in with trade, then transport and communication (back to the old days, therefore), the economy and finance and finally, in the current government, with industry and energy.

This list doesn't tell the whole story, though. For the entire period of José María Aznar's time as prime minister there was no actual tourism minister: tourism was subordinate to the wider economy in ministerial terms. There have long been calls for there to be a minister at cabinet level with sole responsibility, but it has never happened. Fraga, I would maintain, was the closest Spain ever got in this respect.

As tourism hovers around the 11% GDP mark for the country as a whole, it is legitimate to ask whether the industry merits a dedicated minister and ministry. But as has been said consistently in recent years, tourism has been crucial in helping the Spanish economy to recover. How often have we heard it being described as the driving force behind recovery? So it is obviously an important industry, but its importance varies. There are parts of Spain where tourism is vastly more important than others, and there is no region of the country where it is more important than the Balearics.

For the year 2013, tourism contributed 45.5% of Balearic GDP. The region which came closest was the Canaries (31.2%). In another sun-and-beach region, Andalusia, the percentage - 12.5% - wasn't that much greater than the national figure. Such wide variance goes some way to explain why the resignation of the tourism minister has not been greeted with tears in the Balearics.

José Manuel Soria came into his post as industry, energy and tourism minister with a background of having been a vice-president of the Canaries. With a tourism secretary-of-state, Isabel Borrego, being Mallorcan, it might have appeared that the two archipelagos could be assured of a good hearing in Madrid. Such an expectation proved to be a largely false one. Borrego has been widely vilified by the industry. Soria had a better reception by some parts of the industry but not in the Balearics. Gabriel Barceló, co-founder of the Barceló hotel group, said of Soria: "We have a minister for everything except tourism."

His views were echoed by other big hitters in the Mallorcan tourism industry. When it wasn't the founders of Barceló, Riu, Meliá and Iberostar taking him to one side, it was the former president of the hoteliers' federation. Aurelio Vázquez. Why was the IVA (VAT) rate for the industry not being reduced, as had been promised? Why were Aena being allowed to raise airport charges? But it was the oil business that really caused the anger, and so much so that Soria fell out with a PP colleague, former president, José Ramón Bauzá.

The soundings for oil off the Balearics (and also the Canaries) were unacceptable to the tourism industry and to all political parties. But Soria was in an awkward position. He was energy minister as well. It was his other responsibilities which led Gabriel Barceló to say what he did, and the question had to be asked as to why such a combination of duties was ever considered to have been a good idea.

That, though, is the fate of tourism at national level. Never on its own, it never has a sole voice to defend it, while for the Balearics - with such a high GDP dependence - ministers rarely, if ever, offer satisfaction.

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