Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Is Tourist Saturation Such A Negative?

There are many ways of skinning the statistical cat. It depends on the point to be proved and the motives for doing so. The Balearic tourism minister, Biel Barceló, will doubtless approve of what was being proved. It came in a report at the weekend. Mallorca has by far the highest proportion of hotel places per one thousand inhabitants of anywhere in the known tourism world. So high is this proportion that it is almost three times greater than the Canaries, five times greater than the whole of Greece and heading for ten times greater than all of Spain put together. And the point is?

That should be fairly obvious. Mallorca is saturated with tourism in a way that nowhere else is. It has slightly under 233,000 hotel places (which have increased by some 60,000 over the past two decades), representing 306 for every one thousand of those resident on the island. Add on all the various other types of accommodation (estimates/statistics vary) and the total offer is more in the region of 400,000.

Ah yes, you might say, but the Canaries are several islands. Greece has islands and a mainland. How can these be comparable? Well, they're not in direct terms, but if one takes specific islands, then what are the comparisons?

Tenerife attracts more tourism than the other Canary Islands. Its resident population is almost identical to Mallorca's (hovering around the 900,000 mark). It is far more densely populated as it is approximately 55% the size of Mallorca. But its hotel and other official accommodation places are far fewer. This number is around 160,000. Throw in some illegal stuff, and it's roughly a half.

Crete is more than twice the size of Mallorca. Its population is smaller (around 630,000). It has some 87,000 places. A guess might be, therefore, that it has about 100,000 places in all: a quarter of the upper estimate for Mallorca.

So Mallorca is, by comparison, saturated. However, that depends on the definition of saturation. As I have asked previously, what actually might constitute a maximum number of places and so therefore tourists? Or what might be an optimal limit to maintain and grow the island's economy? Does anyone know?

Though intuitively one can accept that there is overcrowding especially in high summer, intuition gets one only so far. The reverse argument, where the likes of Crete or Tenerife are concerned, is that they both have scope for greater development.

But taking whole islands as points of reference doesn't offer an accurate picture. In Mallorca, of the 233,000 places, around 80% of them are concentrated into four zones - Calvia, Playa de Palma and the bays of Alcudia and Cala Millor. A further point I've made before is that there is a strong case for such concentration. It is more efficient environmentally and in terms of resourcing and has been shown to be so in Benidorm. That resort's more or less 73,000 places are almost identical to the regular population and they are in a land area approximately a quarter of the size of Calvia, which has more hotel places than anywhere else in Mallorca (some 60,000). While Calvia's population is smaller (just over 50,000), Benidorm's tourism density in land terms is far higher.

While it is said that it has been the availability of private accommodation that has been contributing to Mallorca's saturation, it is undeniably the case that - for the island as a whole - the base of hotel accommodation greatly exceeds that of other destinations. This is the legacy effect. Resort and hotel development of the early boom years paved the way for ever more development, with most of it confined to the four specific zones.

Is this such a negative, though? From the point of view of efficiency through concentration of hotel places, then not necessarily. But where there is huge inefficiency stems from the fact that all these hotel places (and other accommodation) have been and are used for a limited season. The saturation effect is the consequence of massive development to satisfy a tourism economy which is so clearly imbalanced, which isn't the case in Tenerife and to a lesser extent in Benidorm.

But without this development, where would Mallorca be? The economy is rooted in one product and so therefore dependent on what is, for months of the year, unproductive real estate. Unproductive or not, saturation or not, concentration in specific zones or not, this tourism does have a general benefit that contrasts, for instance, with Tenerife. That island has all-year tourism, but the underlying level of year-round unemployment for a population of much the same size has traditionally been and remains much higher than Mallorca's.

Might it therefore be that this massive supply of accommodation, inefficient though it is, is an asset because of indirect employment? Saturation maybe, but what else is there?

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