Saturday, May 14, 2016

Banning Tourist Cars Or Not

This week's foreign media Mallorca and Balearic alarm-raising headlines had to do with cars. Tourists cars are to be banned from the Balearics, said one headline. This stemmed principally from a piece in La Vanguardia, the Barcelona-based national paper which, given its location, takes a keen interest in that city's tourism affairs (of which there are many) and thus considers other destinations by means of comparison.

The background to all this is familiar enough. The regional government, especially Biel Barceló, has been making reference to overcrowding and saturation for several months. A ban or a limitation on cars has been most spoken about in respect of Formentera. As the island has no airport, it can get overrun by the volume of vehicles: this was certainly how things were being described last summer.

A ban on the entrance of cars to it and to the other islands would be extremely difficult to enforce. It would run up against challenges from the ferry operators and its legality might be questionable. The Balearics are part of Spain, so how can you stop other Spaniards moving freely? And that's before one gets to other European nationalities. The example is cited of Capri, where non-resident vehicles are banned during the summer, but Capri is really tiny and is also right next to the mainland. The comparison, even with Formentera, isn't as strong as some might think, not least because of the differing nature of the islands' governmental administrations.

Another measure is some form of tax. The possibility of this was raised some weeks ago, with imported hire cars being its target along with tourist vehicles. While a charge on hire cars might be possible (as a way of dissuading agencies from bringing ever more cars onto the islands' roads), one for private vehicles would come up against European law. Toll roads are perfectly legitimate but tariffs to simply use roads are not.

The number of vehicles on the road, especially in high summer, is obviously a reflection of the number of tourists, and as this number continues to rise and is expected to rise again this summer, the whole issue of human saturation has arrived centre-stage in Balearics' tourism politics and possible policies.

On 10 August last year, the population of the islands exceeded two million. This was the total population. One can of course ask how the number is arrived at, but assuming that it has some legitimacy it would have acted as confirmation of how much human pressure there can be on any given day in high summer. This maximum value has risen every year since the turn of the century except for one small blip downwards in 2009. In 2000, the maximum, also on 10 August, was 1,543,160. So, tourism has contributed to a rise of over 460,000, has it?

Well no, because the registered population increased by almost 280,000 between 2000 and 2015. Tourism, therefore, has added under 200,000 over the same period, though even here one has to be aware of the caveat that not all this additional number is made up by tourists.

Nevertheless, the increase is significant, and last year's maximum represented an increase of over 40,000 on 7 August 2014, when the population reached its maximum. This wasn't the largest rise since 2000 but it was one of the larger, and crossing the two million mark might be said to have been a crossing of a psychological barrier. Two million are too many, however ill-defined too many might be. Which is of course the nub of the issue. How many people can the Balearics cope with? How many should they cope with?

Saturation, human pressure, overcrowding are going to be themes of this coming summer, even more so than last year.

This said, we already have the sound of the doubting voices ringing in our ears. Despite current tourism performance, there is the familiar, typically anecdotal denial. Businesses are reporting a bad start to the season: the normal response to what statistics would suggest otherwise. Somewhere between the anecdotes and the statistics lies the truth, though it's anyone's guess as to what that might be.

Anyway, for what it's worth, a survey by the Gadeso research organisation here in Mallorca reports that a half of hoteliers expect this season to be better than last year. With all the visitors we can supposedly anticipate this season, one would have thought that they would all be expecting a better year. But maybe the other half see themselves threatened by holiday rentals. They may actually be right.

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