Tuesday, May 10, 2016

What's The Point Of A Blue Flag?

Four years ago, the town hall in Pollensa decided that it would not apply for Blue Flags for its beaches. Consequently, the town's beaches were flagless. The background to the non-application has echoes of the current delay with the contract for beach services, as it was a similar delay in 2011 that was blamed for the subsequent non-application. That background, however, is incidental. What is important was the loss of the flags, and the then spokesperson for the PSM socialists, Tomeu Cifre Bennàsar (now the deputy mayor councillor for the environment), stressed that it was necessary for the flags to be reinstated because of their prestige at international level.

But let us ask a question. Did the loss of the flags make any difference to tourism in the municipality? Well, did it? I will guess that it made absolutely no difference: that there weren't suddenly thousands of tourists ripping up their reservations or altering their holiday plans because there was no Blue Flag.

Beaches in Mallorca have all sorts of quality standards (including Pollensa's). There is one beach - Playa de Muro's - which probably has more certification for quality than you can wave a flag at, and this includes a Blue Flag. It is a beach with an excellent reputation, but then so are very many others and they are excellent because no town hall can risk that they are not. They have to answer, among others, to the national government if standards slip, so there are institutional control mechanisms for beaches in addition to non-governmental organisations such as the Foundation for Environmental Education which controls the Blue Flag programme.

When the flag concept was originated in the mid-1980s, it was an important initiative. As flags began to appear, people did take some notice. That was because an environmental awareness-raising campaign of its type was novel. It was the success of the Blue Flag programme in its early years that was to help engrain a culture of systems for beach maintenance and water quality that was then added to by the increasingly vocal environmentalist movement and by various organisations, such as the ISO (International Standards Organisation), which has its own systems for environmental management.

But in all this time have these various initiatives and certifications made any appreciable difference to tourist decision-making? Initially, they probably did, and that was because of the novelty. Nowadays, though, clean water, well-maintained beaches and various facilities are pretty much taken as being givens. Everyone is aware of the need for sound environmental control.

There are occasions when even the best control goes wrong. Oil spillages are one example. Another has to do with waste. Mallorca's waters faced a significant environmental issue last summer because of the plastic waste coming up from Algeria, but there was a constant clean-up, even if there was publicity given to odd examples where this debris was coming ashore and not being cleared. Where there needs to be greater control is over the isolated but repeated instances of pollution, such as in Palma when it rains heavily, as was the case at the weekend. It is no surprise that the two affected beaches have had their Blue Flags taken away.

The loss of the flags in the Balearics has led to a spat between the regional government and ADEAC, which is the Blue Flag organising association in Spain. Its president has demanded that the government withdraws remarks questioning the value and legitimacy of the Blue Flag awards. There is even a suggestion that its legal people will be considering damage done to it (and also to Spain's tourism).

The ADEAC appears to be upset by the suggestion by the tourism minister, Biel Barceló, that the flags which have been lost this year are because a payment has not been forthcoming. It hasn't in fact been paid since 2013, something that the ADEAC attributes to a "misunderstanding" as to how the adjudication process works. It is reasonable for the ADEAC to point to other coastal regions where a payment is also not made but where the number of flags has increased.

But how has a "misunderstanding" arisen? How is that there are other regions not paying? It's not as if the amounts are vast. Even so, is there a feeling that the flags are not worth it? From research I've found, conclusions are that the flags have little impact on tourist decisions, while in the Balearics there is a view that a "private foundation" is asking for financial contributions for something that creates bureaucracy and work but does not lead to more tourism, given that beaches are in any event of a generally excellent quality.

Each year the announcement of the flags is made with a blaze of publicity, which adds to the sense that they are all about marketing. In Mallorca, beaches can be marketed with or without a Blue Flag.

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